Have you ever heard a song that so completely captures an earlier moment in your life that hearing it again immediately transports you back to that time? Sometimes a powerful catalyzing event seizes the collective attention of a nation, creating a sudden vacuum, waiting only to be filled by a universal means of expression that can clearly and articulately capture those powerful thoughts and emotions, duly recording the essence of a nation’s collective conscience in a manner understandable to the rest of the world, and perhaps more importantly, to posterity.
Some, perhaps many of us were around in 1970 to witness such an event, one that rocked a nation already reeling from escalating racial tensions and an ever widening divide between those who staunchly supported and those who opposed the United States’ unprovoked aggression and ongoing occupation of Southeast Asia.
For this week’s selection, board the Wayback Machine for a trip back to the heady days of 1970. The following may serve to provide some context:
1- January 22 — The Boeing 747’s first-ever commercial flight took off at JFK Airport in New York, landing at Heathrow Airport in London.
2- February 18 — A jury finds the Chicago Seven defendants not guilty of conspiring to incite a riot, in charges stemming from the violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
3- March 17 – My Lai massacre: The United States Army charges 14 officers with suppressing information related to the incident.
4- April 22 – The first Earth Day is celebrated in the U.S.
5- April 29 – The U.S. invades Cambodia to hunt out the Viet Cong; widespread, large antiwar protests occur in the U.S.
6- May 4 – Kent State shootings: Four students at Kent State University in Ohio are killed and 9 wounded by Ohio State National Guardsmen, at a protest against the incursion into Cambodia.
7- May 6 – Hard Hat riot: Unionized construction workers attack about 1,000 students and others protesting the Kent State shootings near the intersection of Wall Street and Broad Street and at New York City Hall.
8- May 9 – In Washington, D.C., 100,000 people demonstrate against the Vietnam War.
9- May 14 — In the second day of violent demonstrations at Jackson State College (now known as Jackson State University) in Jackson, Mississippi, state law enforcement officers fire into the demonstrators, killing 2 and injuring 12.
10- June 24 – The United States Senate repeals the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
The preceding is but a small sampling of those events that were symptomatic of the turbulence and raw energy of those times, when sharp, bitter divisions raged on a number of fronts.
Perhaps the largest divide existed between those who were convinced that if the United States failed to achieve “victory” in Southeast Asia that communism would continue its relentless death march, cancer-like, infesting one country after another with the dreaded scourge of communism. We were warned that each nation would fall one after another, not unlike the sequential toppling of a lengthy row of dominoes. It would only be a matter of time before the hated enemy would land on our sacred shores, to rape and pillage with reckless abandon. Others were convinced that the United States had unwisely and tragically interjected itself into the internal affairs of a sovereign nation that posed no credible threat to our domestic security.
Of the many significant events during that time, the Kent State shootings may well stand out the most vividly, as the broadcast and the print media brought the horror of that tragedy into almost every living room in the country. It seemed that a new line had been crossed. Although violence toward those demonstrating for racial equality or parity between labor and management was common, the killing of students on our college campuses stirred many from their lethargy, perhaps even more so since all four victims were Caucasian and although this shouldn’t have mattered either, none of the four were involved in the demonstration.
One of the greatest singer/songwriters of that day was inspired by the shootings to compose a protest song that became perhaps the most direct statement and defining anthem of the growing opposition to the Vietnam Conflict. The lyrics captured the sense of utter horror, shock and outrage that gripped many, but not all, of our fellow citizens.
A line in the song presented a direct challenge to the Nixon Administration, resulting in its being banned on many AM radio stations. The song did receive extensive airplay on the then-illegal underground FM stations in some of our larger cities and college towns. In the present day, this song receives regular airplay on classic rock stations and Sirius XM’s channels.
Recognizing that many who were around at the time have already identified this week’s selection, without further ado, the song was written by Neil Young, performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the #14 hit from the summer of 1970 entitled “Ohio.” The song was ranked #385 by Rolling Stone magazine in their 2004 list of The Greatest Songs of All Time.
Although the live version of “Ohio”, as well as the flip side of the single, Stephen Stills’ ode to the war dead ,”Find the Cost of Freedom”, were included in CSNY’s 1971 double album, “Four Way Street”, the studio versions of these songs did not appear on an album until CSNY’s compilation album, “So Far”, was released in 1974.
In response to having seen the photos of the Kent State shootings in Life Magazine, Young wrote the lyrics to “Ohio.” When the group entered the Record Plant Studios in Los Angeles, they had already rehearsed the song, recording it live in just a few takes. The production of the single was expedited, and despite the presence of their hit “Teach Your Children” on the charts, “Ohio” was released anyway. Later, Neil Young would relate that “David Crosby cried when we finished this take.” Apparently Crosby’s voice can be heard during the fade, imploring, “Four, why? Why did they die?” and “How many more?”
Various catch phrases in the song burn themselves into the memory, including the accusatory refrain “Four dead in Ohio” and the repeated reference to the President and the Ohio National Guardsmen “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming.” David Crosby once related that Young’s retaining Nixon’s name in the lyrics was the “bravest thing I ever heard.”
“Ohio” was the second most successful single release by the combination of David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young, second only to “Woodstock” in that regard. The Kent State shootings occurred on May 4, 1970. CSNY’s single release first appeared on the Billboard Top 40 charts on July 11, 1970, where it remained for seven weeks, climbing as high as the #14 slot.
CSNY became the de facto voice of the counterculture, achieving better success in this grouping than with previous bands of which they were formerly members, receiving 27 Platinum certifications across seven albums. The diverse makeup of the group allowed them to perform many sub-genres of the popular music of the day, from country-rock to confessional balladry, acoustic guitar and vocals to electric guitar and boogie.
CSNY already enjoyed considerable popularity, following their appearance at Woodstock (as well as in the documentary film of the same name). The Beatles’ breakup had become public by April, 1970 and aided by Bob Dylan’s continued reclusive lifestyle, CSNY joined the Rolling Stones as the primary standard bearers for the counterculture of the day. CSNY has been credited for paving the way for subsequent performers such as Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and The Eagles. The members have continued to be associated with progressive causes since the late 1960s.
Neil Young performs a stirring rendition, backed only by his solo acoustic guitar work. This performance was first recorded in 1971, but was not released until it appeared in Young’s 2007 album, “Live at Massey Hall”…
The Isley Brothers (1971) perform a soulful version of “Ohio”, followed by a cover of Jimi Hendrix’ “Machine Gun” from their album entitled, “Givin’ It Back.” Of particular note is the lead guitar work by Ernie Isley, who was twelve years of age during a brief stint when Jimi Hendrix played backing guitar with the group. The two became friends during Hendrix’ brief tenure.
Ernie started out on drums, performing live with the Isley Brothers for the first time in 1966, at fourteen years of age. He obtained his first guitar in 1968, and played the bass guitar on the Isley Brothers’ biggest hit, “It’s Your Thing”, which climbed to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in 1969. It would seem that in three years’ time, since beginning to learn the guitar, Ernie does a pretty respectable job on this song, apparently paying homage to his now departed friend.
Be sure to given this one a listen!
Paul Weller performs a high-energry cover version in Glastonbury, 1994. Weller recorded a his interpretation of “Ohio” in 1993 during the sessions for Wild Wood, which was released as a B-side to his single “The Weaver.”
Dink performed this version on October 1, 1996, an interpretation metalheads should appreciate…
The Montrose Avenue (1998) — “Ohio” was included as a hidden track on the album “Thirty Days Out”…
Zegota, an American punk rock band, released a 9-minute-long cover of the song. Live at Silent Barn, Brooklyn. From 2001…
“Ohio” was covered by Devo on the 2002 album When Pigs Fly: Songs You Never Thought You’d Hear. The song was of particular significance to this group. Two of its founding members, Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, were students at Kent State during the killings, Casale having witnessed the shooting and known two of the victims.
Casale was not impressed by the song at the time, perceiving it as an opportunisic song by “rich hippies…making money off of something horrible…that they didn’t get.” In the liner notes of the album “Decade”, Neil Young reflected in 1976, “It’s ironic that I capitalized on the death of those American students.”
From the compilation album When Pigs Fly: Songs You Thought You’d Never Hear…
A live version of “Ohio” was included as a bonus track on the first album by Mott The Hoople in 2003…
4waystreet performs their version, billed on the youtube site as from “out of a filthy swiss basement” – Posted on November 29, 2006…
Dala covers “Ohio” during the Borrowed Tunes Neil Young Tribute Concert at the Charles Stockey Theatre, which appears on their album, “Canadian Borrowed Tunes II: A Tribute to Neil Young.” Their recording later appeared on yet another tribute album in 2008 –“Cinnamon Girl – Women Artists Cover Neil Young.” One acoustic guitar, one piano and two female voices combine for a much different sound that the rest. From 2007…
The Dirty Americans’ cover version was posted on January 3, 2008…
This cover version by the Jackson County Line perhaps does not boast the best audio quality, but the mandolin background adds a haunting touch. Posted on August 28, 2008…