Young’s “Ohio” Is Ultimate Protest Song

by Kevin Burton

   At Kent State University they say May 4 the way all Americans say Sept. 11, the date being the only reminder needed of an unspeakable tragedy

   May 4 was the day in 1970 when Ohio National Guardsmen shot 13 Kent State students during a protest of the American invasion of Cambodia, killing four.

   Two of the slain students, William Knox Schroeder, 19, and Sandra Lee Scheuer, 20, were not protesting. They were walking to class on the campus 40 miles south of Cleveland, according to a memorial on the Kent State website.

   When the world needed a voice to channel its rage, rock and roll music was there, in the person of Neil Young.  His “Ohio” was a rallying call for those protesting the Vietnam War and the Kent State tragedy. The Guardian called it the “greatest protest record.”

   Graham Nash, Young’s bandmate in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, recounts the events of those days in an interview by David Hoffman.

   He recalled, “Neil and David (Crosby) up in northern California, watching the news and seeing the four students dead at Kent State. Crosby telling me that he saw Neil’s face, he saw Neil go off into the woods. Neil came back an hour later and played him ‘Ohio.’”

   “Crosby called me and Steven (Stills) and said. ‘Neil has written this song, you’re not going to believe it. We’ve got to get in the studio right away. Neil and Steven came down. We cut ‘Ohio,’ we cut the B side.”

   The band gave the master recording to Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun with instructions to get the record out right away.  In doing that they cut into the airplay and popularity for their current hit, the Nash-penned “Teach Your Children.”

   Nash said the song was out on the streets in ten days.

   “We wanted to put that record out on top of our other record and we killed (Teach Your Children) stone dead and we didn’t care,” Nash said.

    “What we wanted to do was bring it out instantly now,” Nash said. “We were angry now, the kids were angry now. We wanted to speak and scream about this now.”

   The screaming was done in no uncertain terms. “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, we’re finally on our own. This summer I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio,” were the lyrics that started the song.  Though it was banned from some stations Ohio reached number 14 on the Billboard pop chart.

      “The message in Ohio was very simple,” Nash said.

   “We were killing our own children and we were killing them in support of a secret policy of slaughter on a mass scale in Cambodia.” Nash said. “And the youth were not going to take it. They gave their lives to protest it. Kent State was the very essence of the youth movement for me.”

   Crosby tells a different story about the day Young wrote Ohio, but he was still enraged by the shootings years later.

    “The students stood up for their God-given right to protest, and they got slaughtered for it,” he said in 1997.  “Those people were expressing their constitutional right of assembly and were attacked for it, and they’ve never been apologized to.”

   “The words still pack a punch, ‘four dead in Ohio’” wrote Glenn Gamboa in the Akron Beacon-Journal.  “They still capture the seriousness of the tragic shootings at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.”

   The April 30, 1970 invasion of Cambodia was an illegal widening of the already unpopular Vietnam War by then president Richard Nixon. When word got out protests erupted immediately, most memorably at Kent State. They occurred in downtown Kent, then on campus. 

   Some of the protesters shouted and threw rocks at the guardsmen. Witnesses said 28 of the guardsmen used their M-1 rifles to fire

70 shots in 13 seconds, according to, website of the History Channel.  

  “The late author James Michener, who chronicled the Kent State shootings, said that of all the material generated by the event, he was most moved by Ohio,” Gamboa wrote.

   “It did what I could not do,” Michener said. “It dealt with it on an emotional basis.”

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