1970 - Four students at Kent State University were killed and 11 wounded by National Guard troops at a campus demonstration protesting the escalation of the Vietnam War. The incident inspired Neil Young to compose "Ohio," which became a hit for Crosby Stills Nash & Young.
It almost didn't happen. On the heels of the release of their Déjà vu album in March 1970, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young launched an eagerly anticipated tour to promote the album; the first show, at the Denver Coliseum, took place on May 12th, eight days after Kent State. Hampered by sound system problems and internal group tension, the show would prove calamitous, culminating in Young throwing down his guitar and walking offstage before the last song. In the days after, the group returned to Los Angeles and their entire tour was cancelled. The band was beginning to come apart.
But during the ensuing break, Neil Young saw the horrific images in that month’s edition of Life magazine given to him by David Crosby. He reportedly disappeared and returned to his CSN&Y band mates with his song.
The foursome went into the Record Plant Studio in L.A. and recorded it live in only a few takes.
Pop-culture historian and journalist David Bianculli said: “It was the quickest and best reaction to Kent State, with Neil Young acting as 50 percent songwriter and 50 percent journalist. And nobody stopped to think, ‘What will this do to our other hit? What will this do to our image? What will the advertisers think?’ They just thought, ‘This is important and needs to be on the air.’”
In his liner notes for the song on the Decade retrospective: “It’s still hard to believe I had to write this song. It’s ironic that I capitalized on the death of these American students. Probably the biggest lesson ever learned at an American place of learning. My best CSNY cut. Recorded totally live in Los Angeles. David Crosby cried after this take.”
In the fade, Crosby's voice—with a tone evocative of keening—can be heard with the words "Four!", "Why?" and "How many more?".
Over 50 years after it was written and recorded, Neil Young’s “Ohio” remains one of rock’s greatest protest songs. (Photo credit should read JORGE DIRKX/AFP via Getty Images)
On this Day In Music History was sourced from Song Facts, Rolling Stone, American Songwriter and Setlist.