The 60s and 70s were a period of great turmoil over the Vietnam War. From the draft to Nixon’s rash war decisions, unrest grew with time. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio” was an integral part of the musical protest movement of the time. The song was written by Neil Young and recorded by the group just weeks after the Kent State Massacre. In early May of 1970, students at Kent State University in Ohio were protesting the invasion of Cambodia and the large presence of US troops although Nixon had recently promised to decrease troop numbers. The Ohio National Guard had been brought in to contain the protests and protect the campus. On the third day of protests, the guardsmen fired as many as 67 rounds, killing 4 students and injuring 9 others. The guardsmen claimed that a student had fired the first shot, though witnesses adamantly argued that the guards, who were provoked by some students throwing stones, started the shooting.
The event caused outrage and upset across America. Neil Young, a political songwriter, was so provoked by the event that he quickly wrote “Ohio”. The song blew up in popularity, peaking at number 14 on the US Billboard Top 100 chart. As Young later wrote in the liner notes in Decade, his comprehensive triple album compilation of 1977, “It’s still hard to believe I had to write this song. It’s ironic that I capitalized on the death of these American students.” The song’s popularity ended up straining the already tense group-member relations and caused a split later that year.
“Ohio” was especially revolutionary because its lyrics didn’t tiptoe around the specific events and antiwar sentiments that Young wanted to express. The song begins, “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming, we’re finally on our own. This summer I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio.” The lyrics directly reference the massacre in Ohio and Nixon’s name. Later, the song states “Soldiers are gunning us down. Should have been done long ago.” This line is directly stating that the war should end. This blatant anti-war sentiment appealed to many Americans at the time, especially after seeing innocent lives taken. It should also be noted that of the four students killed, only two were even involved in the protest. The song was banned on many AM radio stations for the direct criticism of Nixon, but did receive airplay on many FM stations. As Crosby later explained, using Nixon’s name in the lyrics was “the bravest thing I ever heard.”
Yet, the lyrics are not the only element that highlights the song’s political message. There are many musical elements that CSNY uses to create the political tone. The tempo of the song is an interesting factor to analyze. Often, songs that are written about tragedy or injustice are either ballads or high-speed rages. “Ohio” is played at andante, between fast and slow. This middle tempo actually gives the song a lot of power. It’s steady beat is procession-like and reminiscent of marching, which can be analyzed either as the marching of soldiers or of protesters. The beat is constant throughout, but instrumentation builds for the two choruses in the middle of the song. This central explosion of sound can also be equated with the violence after a few days of nonviolent protest. Another interesting element of the song is that it is played in the key of F but the verse and chorus chords are both minor (Dm and Gm7 respectively.) By using these minor chords to begin musical phrases, CSNY are able to put minor undertones within a song that is for the most part highlighted by major melodies and set in a major key. The song, with its drive and major key to fall back on appears, if lyrics are ignored, to be mainly positive. Yet, there is clearly a haunting aspect to the music. The guitar riff that is featured at the beginning of the song helps set the driving groove but there is something weirdly tragic in the picking pattern and minor undertones. The lyrics also help to further this political tone. Another aspect that pulls the beautiful and seemingly positive song back into its political reality are the chorus harmonies. CSNY are well-known for their gorgeous harmonies. By using these harmonies while singing “four dead in Ohio” they stress the irony and injustice behind using violence against people who are peacefully (for the most part) protesting the war.
In Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Ohio”, the music is able to represent the horrors of the Kent State Massacre and the continued war as well as the lyrics can.
Here is a link to the song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JCS-g3HwXdc
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