As time passes, the meanings of songs can change, evolve and even come back around to be more important than they were in other eras in human history.
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Today, the song “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young is one of those songs.
The meaning of the song is imperative today, made especially so, sadly, in the wake of increased gun violence and even the gun violence at the hands of those who are supposed to protect the innocent citizenry.
Here’s a look at the meaning.
“We were killing our own children,” says Graham Nash, “and we were killing them in support of a secret policy of slaughter on a mass scale.”
That’s what Nash said in an interview, speaking about the origins of “Ohio.”
Nash also talks about Neil Young seeing dead college students at Kent State University, students who were protesting a planned military bombing by American forces in the country of Cambodia, and then Young went off into the woods for an hour and wrote the single.
“Ohio” is a protest song written by Young in reaction to the Kent State shootings on May 4, 1970. It was recorded almost instantly after Young wrote it and it was released some 10 days after it was written, as Nash describes in the above interview.
The song was released with the B-Side of Stephen Stills’ “Find the Cost of Freedom” and it peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard charts.
The song was later re-released on the group’s LP, So Far, in 1974 and a live version had come out earlier on the 1971 double album, 4 Way Street. It also appears on Young’s Live at Massey Hall album, which he recorded in 1971, but wasn’t released until much later in 2007.
Young wrote the song after seeing photos of the massacre in Life Magazine. Those images showed the American National Guard on the campus of Kent State University attempting to halt a protest by students against the bombing in Cambodia. During that protest, the National Guard killed four students, Americans.
Angry at the murders, the four-piece folk-rock group rush-released the single even though they had one out already, “Teach Your Children.” But the band didn’t care about stepping on that song. Instead, they wanted their message out there.
And, boy, that message was heard. “Ohio” became a hit with its signature electric guitar opening and Young’s falsetto singing about then-President Richard Nixon and the military choosing to kill protesting American citizens.
Guns have long been a problem in the country and that’s what “Ohio,” at least in part, is all about.
Today, the same message rings out, making “Ohio” essential.
In the liner notes for the song, Young said the Kent State murders were “probably the biggest lesson ever learned at an American place of learning” and he said that “David Crosby cried when we finished this take.”
In the fade of the song, Crosby’s voice can be heard saying, “Four!” “Why?” and “How many more?”
The song was recorded by Bill Halverson on May 21, 1970, at Record Plant Studio 3 in Hollywood.
A 2010 article in The Guardian said the track was the “greatest protest record” and “the pinnacle of a very 1960s genre.” The same article noted that “the revolution never came.”
Nixon, to no one’s surprise, criticized the song. He won re-election in 1972, including earning the majority in the state of Ohio by a margin of over 21%.
The song opens with Young singing:
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer, I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio
Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?
Said Crosby of the opening lines: Young keeping Nixon’s name was “the bravest thing I ever heard.”
The Song’s Release
After the single came out, it was banned by some AM radio stations, including some in the state of Ohio for challenging the Nixon Administration. The song received a great deal of airplay, however, on underground FM stations in bigger cities and in college towns.
Today, the song is played often on classic rock stations. In 2009, “Ohio” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.