Retrospective: “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young


Ken Burns’ series, “The Vietnam War” incorporates relevant music from the era. For some viewers, it is necessary to examine how and why certain songs have the emotional impact that they do. One song that affects people is “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

A perspective

Few times have I taken myself to task for a reaction I have had to a song. Typically, I note the response and accept it, for better or worse. However, sometimes I do want to analysis my reaction to a song, and when I do, that song is usually from the Vietnam War era.

In the interest of full disclosure, I wasn’t quite born yet when the bulk of the war was going on. By the time it was completely over, my age could still be measured in months. Further, I hold a contradictory position in which I both respect military personnel and strive for peace. My most salient position is that of music fan.

Popular songs in context

I find it important to assign context to songs, especially when they are older than I am. Like a number of music fans, I can appreciate songs that are not necessarily contemporary.

It was after seeing a televised version of the musical “Hair” that I began researching the counterculture movement and the Vietnam Era. I was in middle school, so I have had to check my understanding over the years. At any rate, I developed a taste for songs released during the Vietnam Era– particularly those that expressed wartime sentiments.

“Ohio” has always struck me as poignant. The lyrics and instrumentation worked well to inform audiences. When I found out that the events of the song weren’t metaphors, I was shocked and intrigued.

“Ohio”: The sound of protest

I was reminded of my visceral response to “Ohio” while watching an episode of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War.” The episode covered Vietnam protests at college campuses, including Kent State. On May 4, 1970, four students were killed by members of the Ohio National Guard.

The episode played the song’s haunting opening riffs and showed a close-up of a slain female student. I was chilled and sickened. What was it about the situation that provoked the response? Maybe it was the music and the image together.

What I do know was that the opening measures of “Ohio” underscore the song’s intent. That unadorned, crunchy riff signals protest to me. It symbolizes the brutality of what happened, and raises uncomfortable questions.

As a rock song, “Ohio” succeeds because of how the guitars create a rollicking sound, and the plaintive vocals– lead and backing, create a gentle anthem that convinces listeners to think about the event. The narrative repeats itself over the anguished jangle of guitars. Further, the interplay between instrumentation and vocals, creates texture.

Almost every song that is deemed “good” or worthy of repeated spins, invites audiences to parse the lyrics if there are any. In the case of “Ohio,” the sound and the lyrics can serve to remind listeners of or teach listeners about history. Sometimes the truth of art is the most chilling aspect. That is certainly the case with “Ohio.”


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