(revised and updated March, 2021)
Neil Young’s song Ohio , about the Kent State Massacre, does not cause an emotional response from most young people today. That is understandable since the title does not give any clues.
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Troubling Times for Baby Boomers
To many of us Baby Boomers, it the song is packed with emotion. Protests, peaceful protests to the Vietnam War we commonplace in the latter half of the 1960s. Protestors yelled and threw flowers. At times they got out of hand. They never imagined that police or the National Guard would actual fire live rounds at them.
That all changed in just a few minutes on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio. Neil Young helps us remember.
Those were momentous times for we Baby Boomers. A President John F. Kennedy, Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy and a civil rights icon Martin Luther King had all been gunned down. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin perished from drug overdoses.
To me, the Kent State massacre holds the same level of importance and emotional pull.
Kent State Massacre
Until now, no one knows for sure who set the ROTC Center on fire but the torching pushed Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes to send in the National Guard.
Rhodes declared, “We are going to eradicate the problem. We’re not going to treat the symptoms. …and these people just move from one campus to the other and terrorize the community….They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America. Now I want to say this. They are not going to take over [the] campus. I think that we’re up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America.”
On May the 4th, the protesters were not only angry about the escalation of the war far away in Asia. They vehiminently vocalized their opposition to the National Guard being on campus.
The troops moved on the students. The students threw rocks. The guardsmen retreated to the top of the knoll. Myron Pryor, a sergeant began firing his pistol at the crowd of young people. Guardsmen quickly fired their rifles. In less than half a minute, 29 of the 77 guardsmen shot at least 67 rounds of ammunition.
After the shots stopped, bodies laid all over the grounds. Four were dead and nine more were wounded. Those killed or wounded were, for the most part, 250 to 750 feet away from the National Guard.
The tragic event became known as the Kent State massacre.
Immediately after the shots rang out and the wounded and dead lay on the ground, many angry students were ready to launch an all-out attack on the National Guard. Many faculty members, led by geology professor and faculty marshal Glenn Frank, pleaded with the students to leave the Commons and to not give in to violent escalation:
I don’t care whether you’ve never listened to anyone before in your lives. I am begging you right now. If you don’t disperse right now, they’re going to move in, and it can only be a slaughter. Would you please listen to me? Jesus Christ, I don’t want to be a part of this …….
The killings at Kent State ignited angry demonstrations across the country. Students went on strike causing hundreds of colleges and universities to shut down.
September, 1970 President Richard Nixon’s President’s Commission on Campus Unrest delivered it findings. They concluded that “the indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.”
Neil Young’s Ohio
Neil Young’s Ohio memorializes the four dead and the emotions of the time.
A few days after the Kent State Massacre, David Crosby plopped a copy of Life magazine in front of Neil Young. The images of the dead and wounded on the ground and the troops on the knoll both horrified and outraged Young.
He secluded himself for several hours. When he returned to his Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young band, he had the lyrics to the song in hand. They went to L.A. to the Record Plant Studio. After very few takes, Ohio was ready to be be released.
“I remember getting nuts at the end of the song, I was so moved,” Crosby told Young’s biographer Jimmy McDonough. “I was freaked out because I felt it so strongly, screaming, ‘Why? Why?'”
After three weeks after the shootings, Ohio filled the airways. That is the quickest any protest song had made it into the public’s ears and consciousness.
In the May 6th, 2010 edition of Britian’s The Guardian newpaper , Dorian Lenskey proclaim Ohio “the greatest protest record.”
Kent State Victims Relatives
Demme appreciated the emotion in Young’s song and wanted to highlight it by showing images of the clash between the students and the protestors and the faces of the four dead. So he tracked down the families of those students and asked their permission to show the images. Securing their agreement was an emotional experience for Demme.
He says, “We were able to take the viewers back to the campus that day. I’m sure 75 per cent of the audience have never seen that footage, they probably don’t know the name of the college and they certainly don’t know there were two young women and two young men who got shot down that day.”
He adds about this remembrance of the Kent State massacre, “I thought, in these contentious times – with everything that’s going on in the country and around the world – how close are we to shooting our students again? I feel there’s a cautionary dimension to presenting the song today that I think is valuable”.