May 4, 1970: Kent State Deaths Inspire CSNY’s ‘Ohio’

Share This:

45 RPM sleeve for the CSNY single, “Ohio”

“Four dead in Ohio” is not the kind of lyric you’d expect to find in a hit single. Yet those words were crucial to “Ohio,” the song written by Neil Young following the horrific Kent State University massacre of May 4, 1970, in which four students were shot dead by the Ohio National Guard. Recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, “Ohio” was released as a single in late May or early June, backed with Stephen Stills’ “Find the Cost of Freedom.” (Some point to May 21 as the day it was delivered to radio stations.)

To put the timing in some perspective, CSNY had released their first album as a quartet, Déjà Vu, on March 11. Its first single, “Woodstock,” had been released in March. The follow-up, “Teach Your Children,” came out in May. “Ohio” was essentially an “instant single.” In its review, Record World described it as “a document of our times.”

This ad for the single appeared in the June 13, 1970 issue of Record World

“Teach Your Children” had already been climbing the chart and was at #25 in its fourth week when “Ohio” made its debut at #67 on June 27. One week later, the latter was already at #41. It ultimately reached #14 on Billboard (#13 on Record World).

Record World’s Aug. 8 “100 Top Pops” chart shows the two CSNY singles, “Ohio” and “Teach Your Children,” near the top

Despite – or perhaps because of the significant attention to the events of May 4 – both singles flourished simultaneously on Top 40 radio. (Young’s solo song, “Cinnamon Girl,” was also a current single.)

Although he was Canadian by birth, Young, like so many others in America and around the world, was appalled at the news of the college campus shootings. He’d heard about the students’ protest against the Vietnam War and the Guard’s wanton disregard for those students’ rights and lives. It was later revealed that 29 Guardsmen fired 67 rounds in just 13 seconds, killing the four students and wounding 10 others.

Young wrote: “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, we’re finally on our own/This summer I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio.” The verse was sung twice, as was the chorus: “Gotta get down to it, soldiers are cutting us down/Should have been done long ago/What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground/How can you run when you know?”

Kent State Univ. has lots of information about the events of May 4, 1970, on its website to commemorate its 50th anniversary in 2020.

The iconic image of an era-defining tragedy

Recorded live in just three takes, with the rhythm section of bassist Calvin Samuels and drummer John Barbata, “Ohio” spoke to a generation growing increasingly angry and more frustrated over the escalation of the war. Some radio stations banned the record, particularly those in areas of the country where support of the war and President Nixon outweighed that of the opposite sentiment.

Nonetheless, “Ohio” is now considered a classic protest song of the era. It appeared in a live version on the group’s 4 Way Street album and has been included on several compilations.

It was selected as the 395th greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone in 2004, and in 2009, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Watch Young perform “Ohio” in 1971

Related: Stills and Young performed together in 2018

Best Classic Bands Staff

11 Comments so far

Jump into a conversation
  1. JusSayin
    #1 JusSayin 5 May, 2017, 11:53

    That is *NOT* “the iconic image of an era defining tragedy”. In the real iconic image, there is a post behind Mary Ann Vecchio as she wails over Jeffrey Miller’s body. Some editors had the post photographically removed because they thought it would offend the sensibilities of their readers by appearing to have Vecchio’s head pierced with a pole.

    Is that a young Chrissie Hynde in the photo with Vecchio? She was at Kent State at the time, and quite thin. Look at the boots. In 1970 the heels indicate female boots, with too extreme an angle to be riding boots.

    Reply this comment
  2. fred
    #2 fred 6 May, 2017, 10:10

    coming again soon. To your town. War, what is it good for???

    Reply this comment
  3. Cary
    #3 Cary 4 May, 2019, 10:12

    Song was released on May 14, I believe. I know I had a copy of the lyrics in May while freshman in college.

    Reply this comment
    • Greg Brodsky
      Greg Brodsky 4 May, 2019, 11:28

      From everything we’ve seen, Cary, it appears the dates cited in the story are correct. While the lyrics may have appeared earlier, the single wasn’t released until June. “Teach Your Children” came out first, in late May, just ahead of it.

      Reply this comment
  4. Matt
    #4 Matt 4 May, 2020, 07:41

    Also The Beach Boys student demonstration time

    Reply this comment
  5. phil
    #5 phil 5 May, 2020, 14:10

    ‘Teach Your Children’ was a staple of FM and Oldies radio for a longgg time, decades. It was probably the most (main-stream) exposure Jerry Garcia ever had ..

    Reply this comment
  6. Neal Umphred
    #6 Neal Umphred 5 May, 2023, 00:26

    “Ohio” was reviewed in the Spotlight Singles section of the June 20, 1970, issue of Billboard. For a major release such as this, that usually indicates a release date of twelve days earlier—or June 8, 1970.

    Reply this comment
    • Greg Brodsky
      Greg Brodsky 5 May, 2023, 13:19

      Thanks, Neal; the precise date is unknown and it likely had slightly different dates to radio and retail. We’ve hedged with the “early-to-mid-June.” (And the Record World ad included in the story has a cover date of June 13, one week before the reviews ran in Billboard and RW.)

      Reply this comment
  7. Megan
    #7 Megan 8 May, 2023, 18:26

    Thanks to Neil. I clearly remember my life in those times and how horrific that day was.

    Reply this comment
  8. Rollbert
    #8 Rollbert 5 May, 2024, 08:30

    Was at the Fillmore East the first week of June 1970 to see CSNY. When they played Ohio it was like instant news as the event only happened a month before. That was the first time hearing the song with such a strong chorus I can still here echos of it today.

    Reply this comment
  9. Samhainkid
    #9 Samhainkid 6 May, 2024, 09:45

    Strangely enough, the Kent State shootings were also the catalyst for the formation of Devo. Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh were students there at the time and were really affected and shaped by the incident. It made them activists in their own quirky/artsy way.

    Reply this comment

Your data will be safe!Your e-mail address will not be published. Also other data will not be shared with third person.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.