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There’s much about it that’s mythical, that takes the music way beyond its own unique syncopation and opening guitar riffs into something so big that Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young undercut their own hot item, a tune titled “Teach Your Children,” by releasing “Ohio” as lightning fast as they did.
They put it on the market when “Teach” was still climbing, virtually assuring the earlier cut would never reach the heights it might have. Whether or not they actually sat down and decided to release “Ohio” with the immediacy they did isn’t clear, in part because “Ohio” was, well, epoch-making–and they seemed to know it themselves, even in the studio. “Ohio” was, to them, and to millions of others, including me back then, a much younger me, something more than late 60s protest.
The history is worth retelling. In the bloodiest confrontation between the National Guard and the anti-war movement, four Kent State students were shot dead when the Guard opened fire at a campus protest. There was, in early May of 1970, a sense, at least among some young people–including me–that the anti-war movement was gaining ground. The Vietnam War simply had not shown signs of ending. Body bags by the score were still coming back from a place most Americans couldn’t have pointed out on a globe. The muscle of the anti-war movement was flexing.
So, the story goes that David Crosby, who died just recently, showed Neil Young the duly famous picture of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of a kid who was shot just then, a picture as famous as any of the era or even of the century, for that matter.
Young took a look, grabbed his guitar, and went out into a stand of trees. In an hour he returned, having created a single line of music–or so the story goes. He played it, sang it, to Crosby, who immediately–seriously, immediately–reserved studio time yet that night. Thus, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young created, released, and marketed an anthem that, like the iconic photograph, came to speak for the entire era, the era in which, I confess, I grew up.
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer, I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio
“Ohio” didn’t mess around. Nixon is right there, first line, just before “four dead in Ohio.” Neil Young didn’t try to be artful. If art requires allusion–something more than meets the eye–“Ohio” isn’t art. “Ohio” is testimony, in-your-face protest, and it’s in me, deeply in me.
Those students were shot on May 4. A few days later, the call went out—”May 10, we’ll gather in DC for a huge student protest.” I heard it early, my last semester in college. I was listening to the news on a clock radio my parents had given me before I left for college. Student protest groups were calling kids from campuses around the nation to come to the capital on the 10th of May for a giant anti-war protest: Kent State University, four kids dead. There’d been no protests at Dordt College, in the heart of a region that was and still is four-square Republican. Earlier, there’d been a gathering in Central Park in support of Nixon–he was, after all, the President, a kind of “divine right” thing.
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?
I decided right then, the news still coming in, that I had to go, and so I did. Three of us left in a VW bug for a trip that would take us halfway across the continent, far, far away, literally and figuratively. No college funds were spent. I don’t know that the three of us would have had the backing of any other souls on campus. We just took off.
That was more than a half-century ago. When I hear those savage opening lines of “Ohio,” I can’t help but think that decision to go, back then, was just as driven as any in the wake of Kent State, just as immediate as Crosby, Stills, and Nash to Neil Young’s inspired lyric. I didn’t think about going. We just left. I did. Me.
The whole era returned with the death of David Crosby last month. That death returned all of us who won’t and can’t forget the anti-war movement’s own battle hymn. Neil Young’s “Ohio” simply is the age. It simply is.
When we returned after that weekend, I was no more a radical than I’d been when I left. But I wasn’t the same guy, nor would I ever be. The Kent State March on Washington was no Damascus road for me, but when, once again last month, I heard that half-a-century old battle cry, I couldn’t help but think it had never slipped from my consciousness.
“Ohio” put a lock on the me that was emerging, even though, back then, I knew guys who were dying in Vietnam, which makes my moment in time small potatoes.
That was last month. Won’t be long and there’ll be green out back in our acre. I’ll go out and subdue the earth, or try. And when I’m pulling Russian thistles in July heat, “‘Give,’ said the little stream–Give, o give; give, o give,” will, unbeckoned, start playing from Let Youth Praise Him. Third grade, Oostburg Christian School. Different era, different me–but all of it a blessing. “Ohio,” “The Ninety-and-nine,” and “Strawberry Fields”–a thousand more play on a turntable that pours out tunes pretty much all on its own in a memory that’s not always mine to control.
Amazing–just amazing. We’re blessed with a score of moving parts, but a thousand more that don’t move but stick for reasons unknown and don’t wear out until we do.
Attended a good friend’s funeral this week, where the entire gathering read together Number One of the Heidelburger: “I am not my own. . .” Happens to be, today, my 75th birthday. The older I get, the more I come to believe the profound mystery of that beloved confession.
Long ago, in Mere Morality, Lewis Smedes tried to set out a consistent moral compass for believers. And what you do when your aging parents (like me) get ornery? he asked. His advice is as fixed in me as “Ohio” and “Onward Christian Soldiers.”” Here’s what he advised: “Respect your parents mystery.”
Sure as anything, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and mysteries, really, all of us.
“Amazing–just amazing. We’re blessed with a score of moving parts, but a thousand more that don’t move but stick for reasons unknown and don’t wear out until we do.”
What a great line!
Thankful for: it – this morning, the evocations … and you…
Thanks so much. And thanks for going.
Thanks, Jim and Happy Birthday! Thanks for going to the protest then and for your voice now. This piece brought tears for some reason. Maybe because I’m a protester as well at nearly 77.
A year after the Kent State incident, our Oberlin Inter-Varsity chapter decided to go to Kent State on a Saturday to wander the campus and evangelize the students. Thanks to the fact that it was 1) a beautiful weather weekend and 2) the anniversary of that horrible event, there was practically nobody on campus. So we just wandered around and felt useless.
Thanks for capturing the time and the moment so well. Thanks for taking us back there with you. Thanks for reminding us of the power of lyrics in our day to day and in our memories. And have a great birthday!
Thank you. You brought it all back. But that year and the music – it was a turning point for me as well. Like being shot from a cannon and not turning back.
Ah, Jim, I recall all of this – the music and the horror and its impact on some of us in our little corner of Iowa. We still need the courage you showed in actively protesting. Happy Birthday!
Thanks James for triggering those memories of the Kent state killings and the Ohio song. Whoa, what a story. Good not to forget.
I remember an impassioned gathering in the coffee shop of the Calvin Commons where we organized transport to D.C. and lodging. (I think we bunked in the basement of a CRC minister’s house). I sensed a lot of common purpose and focus in that 1970 march. Some of us went back for another march in the spring of 1971, but the whole ethos seemed very different to me – more drug party than moral protest. In terms of the Joni Mitchell “soundtrack” of my life, the movement had gone from “We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden” to “Acid, booze, and ass, needles, guns, and grass – lots of laughs” – in a very short time!
Jim, I remember the song and the time. Neil Young has remained a favorite of mine. I will be 75 my next birthday and Charlie and I protested the involvement in Viet Nam. Charlie actually went to a lawyer to see if there was a way out of fighting in the war. We had our children younger than you, but I don’t think that would have helped if Charlie was called up. Fortunately, he wasn’t. His younger brother, Bob, was called up and he called himself a pacifist. He took the role of being a ” nurse” but was sent home when they saw he was being very honest about his position. It is very strange for us to learn not that many years ago that Charlie’s father was a pacifist too. He was too ashamed to speak of it and it was his father who recommended that Charlie join the Army organization in college, and it was that exposure to large weapons that brought on the Charlie’s pacifism. God does work in magnificent ways.
Same weekend, different angle: On Friday, May 8 the Calvin College Peace Council hosted a campus-wide walk-out and rally on the Commons lawn. Having heard that the Calvin Seminary Choir was going to conduct the White House worship service with Nixon in attendance that weekend, we led rally attenders in a march to Calvin Seminary. With nationwide student protests brewing we thought it inappropriate that any part of the Calvin community should imply even a tacit approval of the Nixon administration policies by leading worship at the White House. When the choir denied our request, three of us from the Peace Council requested a meeting with College President Spoelhof to ask that he work with Congressman Jerry Ford’s office to get the White House visit rescheduled. He politely declined. We informed him that we were leaving shortly for Washington to join in the student protest. He stood up behind his desk, shook my hand and said, “Represent Calvin College well. We went and we did. Over the years I came to understand why he did not intervene, and grateful for his encouragement.
Visited Kent State years later and the bullet holes were still in place. In my mind’s eye the battle raged though the campus was silent. Some stories never fade – Thanks Jim.
There was so much protest passion then (and thanks for yours, Jim), and there is so much need for protest passion now. Is it still felt on our campuses today? Or do we suffer from a desensitizing shock overload?
Shootings on college campuses, for very different reasons, still tear our hearts out.
Happy Birthday! Welcome to the club!Diana
I tried, Jim, to put probably the last photograph of David Crosby here so he could thank you and wish you Happy Birthday. David’s holding a golden retriever puppy that Dan Gerber had just brought to him.
I, too, thank you, Jim.
You didn’t happen to run into my sister at the protest, did you? 😊
I’ll add my thanks to the many others, Jim. “Ohio.” That brings back so many memories. A few days after the event I was in a meeting hall at Colorado State Univ., listening to a talk. Students came bursting through the door shouting “Shut it (CSU) down! Shut it down.” When the host leaders got their attention, they quieted them by telling them the speaker was Ralph Nader. The immediacy of those days comes rushing back. Hope you had a happy birthday.