Neil Young’s “Ohio” and the Kent State Shootings

by Yumika Hamada

“Four dead in Ohio”– Neil Young, a Canadian singer songwriter and guitarist, repeats this phrase over and over in the middle part and at the end of his protest song “Ohio.”  The song was written by Young and was based on an incident in the U.S. in which the Ohio National Guard shot into a crowd of demonstrators at Kent State University, killing four students and injuring nine in 1970.  The impact of this event shocked Young.  He saw photos of the Kent State tragedy and lost his words for a long time. He then picked up his guitar and had the song within twenty minutes.  The lyrics of Neil Young’s “Ohio” reflect the anger and sorrow of anti-war protesters about the Kent State shootings and criticize the government that caused the death of the students.

“An unlovely unforgettable voice” writes Katherin Gilday of the Toronto Globe and Mail about the distinctive and emotional voice of Neil Young.  Neil Young was born on 12 November 1945 in Toronto. When he was in high school, he performed with a rock band “The Squires,” which was his first band.  He moved to the United States in 1966 and worked with “Buffalo Springfield” for two years.  After the band broke up, he started his solo career from 1969.  A rock band “Crazy Horse” supported Young in his creation of many folk songs. Along with Young’s solo work, he also released six albums as a member of Crosby Stills Nash and Young (CSNY) since 1968.  At that time, he went on scale tours in places outside of the U.S., such as Asia and Europe.  “Ohio” was written by Young and CSNY.  His career as a singer songwriter received recognition and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.  His songs and actions have strong messages related to current events of U.S. because he has lived there for more than 46 years.  A few days after the 9.11 attacks, Young performed the song “Imagine” by John Lennon, even though this song was regard as questionable for airplay.

The tragedy of the Kent State Shootings occurred in Ohio on May 4th, 1970.  Five hundred Kent State University students held a demonstration on May 1st to protest president Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War to Cambodia.  The demonstration gradually turned extreme so police and the National Guard were sent to Kent State University on May 2nd. On May 4th, the National Guard fired and four students were killed and nine others injured.  Two students of the four killed were part of the demonstration but the others were just walking near the protest.

In the lyrics “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, ” Young says the president’s name directly in the song, “Ohio.”  In 1970, Richard Nixon, elected president in 1968, promised to end the Vietnam War but he announced the invasion of Cambodia and many college students were concerned about being drafted and started protesting against the war.  This was the cause of the demonstration and the Kent State Shootings.

The song, “Ohio” reflects Young’s feeling and messages.  Young strongly criticizes Nixon and the National Guard in the song.  The National Guard are called “Tin Soldiers” by Young because they just obey commands.  Young expresses himself and the general public as “We” so “We’re finally on our own” means the government which shot students is not on the general public’s side anymore.  “This summer I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio” shows the situation that Young knew about the shootings in May, in which four students were dead.  Drumming means the sounds of the soldier’s footsteps and gunshots.  “Gotta get down to it / Soldiers are cutting us down” makes an emotional appeal to listeners that people (we) should face and understand the fact that the National Guard shot citizens.  “Should have been done long ago” tells us that America should have ended the Vietnam War to avoid this happening. The last two lines, “What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground” / “How can you run when you know?” encourage the general public to imagine how sad protesters were when the event happened.  Young sings to listeners as “you” to make them understand the feelings of protesters.  In this song, Young expresses his position against the government and war, and calls attention to the sorrow of protesters who lost their friends at Kent State University.

Through this song, “Ohio,” Young wants to make people to think about ending the war and he expresses the protester’s grief.  People, especially students who were part of the demonstration at the University, hoped for the end of the Vietnam war.  Young put his feeling against the war, the government and the Kent State Shootings into words and he also tries to create sympathy for the victims in the song.  Music never disappears and, therefore, every time people hear the song, the fear of the event in 1970 will be remembered and also the message from Young about the anti-war movement will be handed down to next generation.

Video by The BacMaster (YouTube)

Further Reading

Daniel Durchholz and Gary Graff. Neil Young: Long May You Run: The Illustrated History. Minneapolis: Voyageur Press, 2010.

Yumika Hamada is a third-year student in the Department of British and American Cultural Studies.