By Stephen Wilt
A half-century ago almost to the day, Neil Young would write arguably one of the greatest protest songs of all time. Young having a short break between tours was comfortably sitting in road manager Leo Makota’s California home. When former bandmate David Crosby pointed out LIFE Magazine’s cover story, an account of the murder of four Kent State students by the National Guard following a Viet Nam on protest May 4, 1970.
A witness to the event was student Chrissie Hynde, who would become the lead singer of the Pretenders. Describing what she saw, the chilling recollection in her 2015 autobiography Reckless was only one of many:
“Then I heard the tatatatatatatatatat sound. I thought it was fireworks.” Hynde wrote, “An eerie sound fell over the common. The quiet felt like gravity pulling us to the ground. Then a young man’s voice: ‘They fucking killed somebody!’ Everything slowed down and the silence got heavier.”
Like many students, Hynde, unclear of the situation walked over to see what was going on.
“By the time I made my way to where I could see them it was still unclear what was going on,” the musician wrote. “The guardsmen themselves looked stunned. We looked at them and they looked at us. They were just kids, 19 years old, like us. But in uniform. Like our boys in Vietnam.”
Another witness to the devastation was Gerald Casale, who became bassist/singer with Devo.
“All I can tell you is that it completely and utterly changed my life. I was a white hippie boy and then I saw exit wounds from M1 rifles out of the backs of two people I knew,” Casale recalled in a 2005 interview with The Vermont Review.
Although not having witnessed the shootings, Young told the story as America saw it. The chorus, “Four dead in O-H-I-O,” became the cry of a generation and the song is arguably regarded as the greatest protest song of all time. Upon receiving a phone call, bandmates Stephen Stills and Graham Nash flew to Southern California, finishing the song in only a couple takes. The single was then rushed into production by Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegun and was released within the week. At a time before the internet, the song was able to provide the nation with an accurate account of the shooting and received national airplay immediately.
After the song’s release, New Musical Express magazine predicted “Ohio” would be the start of a long line of protest songs. Despite the prediction, “Ohio” marked the end of an era that had kicked off with Bob Dylan and continued with Country Joe McDonald. Marking a turning point, the song did what Young intended. Told the story of four lives lost.
“Neil surprised everyone,” Crosby told The Guardian in a 2010 interview. “It wasn’t like he set out as a project to write a protest song,” the musician added. Young’s writing style has been one of storytelling since he released Harvest. The Ohio song was no different.
Young wasn’t able to change the world, but now a half-century later, “Ohio” is more relevant than ever. During the Chicago Seven trial, Youth International Party leader Abby Hoffman noted, “Rock musicians are the real leaders of the revolution.” The song was heard then and plays to this day. The impact it has had on story songwriters is unimaginable. Young prefers not to sing the song to this day and up until CSNY’s 2006 tour, the song was forgotten as Young was concerned about taking advantage of the victims. He justifies it as reminding America of its history, and that’s what he has always intended to do.
Stephen Wilt is a student in the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure Univetrsity. He is a former station manager of WSBU-FM, the school’s campus radio station.