I would like to believe that I can write the words “Kent State Massacre”, and everyone would know what I was talking about. But it probably isn’t the case. When it happened in 1970, it was easy to believe that no one would ever forget it, and that was what Neil Young wanted to make sure of when he wrote Ohio for Crosby Stills Nash and Young. I was nine and a half at the time, but I had an older brother who was in high school, and therefore very aware of the draft. Nowadays, it is the law here in the United States that you must register for the military draft when you turn 18. But there hasn’t been an actual draft in wartime since the Vietnam War. Our young people today take it for granted that they would only serve in an American war if they volunteered. And, partly for that reason, none of the wars the United States has fought in since Vietnam has given rise to the kinds of widespread student protests that were common in those days.
On April 30, 1970, President Nixon announced that he had expanded the war to Cambodia. Students at Kent State University in Kent Ohio quickly organized a series of protests. By May 4, the decision had been made to bring in the National Guard to force the students to disperse. It’s hard to say why things got out of hand the way the did. The students had been throwing rocks, first at the police, and then at the Guardsmen when they arrived. But, none of the students got closer than about 100 yards from the Guardsmen. You would have to have a pretty good arm to be much of a threat at that distance. Whatever the case, some of the Guardsmen opened fire. In 17 seconds, 67 rounds of ammunition were fired at the unarmed students. When it was all over, four students were dead or dying, and nine others were wounded. Two of the students who died weren’t even part of the protest; they just happened to be in the wrong place, on their way to their next class.
Those were the events that shocked a nation, and inspired Neil Young to write Ohio. The song was released as a single a couple of weeks after the event, and came out on a live CSNY album the following year. CSNY recorded the song as a rock anthem, and it worked as a powerful protest song at the time. But, as I noted in my introduction, these are very different times than those. There is no anti-war movement to rally, not like there was then. So how should a contemporary artist cover the song? Dala has answered that question brilliantly. Instead of a protest anthem, they render the song as a cry of mourning. The slow it down, and remove the wailing of the electric guitars from the original. Neil Young and Co made Ohio a rallying cry, and the victims of Kent State martyrs to the cause. Dala finds the humanity in the song, and reminds us that the victims were somebody’s sons and daughters. Young’s writing allows both approaches, and each one is or was utterly right for its time.