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Kent State revisited

By Rich Heldenfels Published: May 2, 2014

Sunday is the 44th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State. CNN, for one, will have special that night with people recalling the events that day; more about that in Sunday's HeldenFiles. Below, I have pasted a piece I wrote in 2010, for the 40th anniversary, about Kent State and its place in pop culture. Here goes:

The shootings at Kent State have inspired artistic interpretations — books, movies, songs, visual arts. But for those who consider the events 40 years ago a major historical moment, the amount of art devoted to them must seem slim.

For example, we already have had more scripted movies about Sept. 11 — which is still less than a decade ago — than about what happened on May 4.

Kent State is messy. Controversy still dogs what happened that day in 1970. The shootings are entangled in wars that America is still fighting, over the meaning of Vietnam and what is right for American culture.

''There's a struggle over the kind of memory of Vietnam and that history, how history is written,'' said Daniel Miller, a filmmaker, University of Oregon professor and Kent State student in 1970. ''Depending on who you talk to, you get different versions of it. . . .

''One of the recent examples that really presents what those arguments are in terms of polarization was the characterization of John Kerry . . . and everything that happened with the Swift Boat.''

Kent State, in at least one observer's view, is the equivalent of box-office poison in an entertainment world where controversy can be seen as economically damaging.

Look, too, at pop music. Historian Hugo Keesing is curator of the 13-CD set Next Stop Is Vietnam, due in July. He said recently there are more than two dozen recordings about Kent State. Next Stop box will highlight May 4 with the Beach Boys' Student Demonstration Time, Third Condition's Monday in May (The Kent State Tragedy) and Barbara Dane's The Kent State Massacre.

But Keesing said Ohio — the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young recording made shortly after the shootings — is the only Kent State song to have made a significant commercial impact. Keesing wanted it in the Vietnam box but could not get permission.

Yet Ohio, written by Neil Young, never rose higher than No. 14 on the Billboard singles chart. (A live version was part of CSNY's Four-Way Street, which briefly topped Billboard's album chart in 1971.)

At the time of the Kent State shootings, the No. 1 song in the country was the Jackson 5's ABC. By the end of May, it was Ray Stevens' Everything Is Beautiful.

It took more than 10 years to have an extensive, nondocumentary screen consideration of Kent State: the February 1981 TV movie based in part on James Michener's book, Kent State.

The book had been criticized for its inaccuracies. So was the TV version. Viewing audiences, then in the early stages of the Reagan era, issued a collective yawn, and the movie tanked in the ratings.

'THE SEVENTIES'


The Seventies, a 2000 miniseries that began with a group of fictional young people at Kent State, was another flop. (Also, like 1981's Kent State, it was made far from Ohio.) Even in Northeast Ohio, The Seventies could not beat episodes of The X-Files and The Practice.

Beyond Vietnam, Kent is part of the culture wars that rage to this day and the wave of despair and cynicism that swept over American youth in 1969-70.

The year before the Kent State shootings, 1969, offers two indications of how complicated things could be:

• Woodstock — half a million kids, fun and music — was the upbeat view of what the nation might be. The Star-Spangled Banner was still cool, if Jimi Hendrix was playing it.

• The movie Easy Rider became a sensation with its long-haired, drug-dealing young characters, exploring alternatives to the American mainstream — only to be gunned down by people who hated them based on looks alone.

Easy Rider proved more knowing. The supposedly happy vibe of Woodstock nonetheless included mordant songs like Country Joe and the Fish's I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixing-to-Die Rag, with its line, ''Next stop is Vietnam.''

Violence and death seemed visible across the culture. The horror of the Altamont rock fest arrived in December 1969, around the same time that Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was shot by Chicago police. On the heels of Kent State came the shootings on another college campus, Mississippi's Jackson State.

On Meet the Press in September 1970, Harvard's Joseph Rhodes Jr. said, ''One of the hard things we have to get across in the country is . . . when you talk about punishing criminal students, you are sometimes talking about killing somebody's children.''

Through all the tumult, young people were dying in Vietnam, too. In Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam, one GI hears of sorrowful reactions to Kent State and rants: ''Why don't your hearts cry out and shed a tear for the 40-plus thousand red-blooded Americans . . . who have given their lives so a bunch of bloody bastard radicals can protest?''

You can look across the events of 1969 and 1970 and ask why would anyone want to look back at that time?

''Few people want to revisit unpleasant subjects,'' said Bill Gordon, author of the book Four Dead in Ohio, and Kent State had ''too much baggage'' in cultural terms. It took eight years to get the book published, he said. In publishing, he said, Kent State is ''the equivalent of box-office poison.''

''Maybe it's one of those stories that is very, very hard for us as a country to face,'' said Dr. Lauren Onkney, vice president of education and public programs for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. ''One of those moments where we're fighting each other. I think one of the powerful things about Ohio is that the song has that anger and confusion and passion in it.''

Onkney, like Payne and Fire in the Heartland director Miller, believes students still are interested in what happened. Payne is heightening that interest by using newer forms of storytelling, having students essentially re-enact the events of May 4 through electronic social media such as Googlegroups.com.

''I think it's safe to say most people in the country know about Kent State,'' Miller said. ''And students know about it. I can talk about Fred Hampton's murder, for instance, and very few people know about that. No one knows about Jackson State. But if I say Kent State, most people will at least be knowledgeable in that students were shot and killed in 1970.''

But, he added, ''I think they have very little deep contextual knowledge.''

''In my teaching experience, when students have found out about it, they tend to be shocked,'' said Onkney, who will moderate a panel about rock music and Vietnam for the Kent anniversary. ''And even young people who have heard and loved [the song] Ohio, they don't necessarily know what it's about.''

Even some documentaries, Miller said, ''are really good at telling the facts of the day of May 4 but not very good . . . at providing any analysis or context for the event.''

He tried to remedy that with his film, which he believes has ''a story of Kent that hadn't been told.''


TRUTH VS. ART


Yet in big and small strokes, the 1981 movie is a reminder of how difficult it can be to convey essential truths through art. For example, Payne recalled one viewer complaining that the shooting took 13 seconds and in the 1981 movie, it was just 12.6.

An even more interesting perspective came from Louis Cusella, who knew shooting victim Bill Schroeder. He found the movie troubling because it made his friend look too good, exaggerated ''to purify his image.''

''On a personal level, I reacted favorably,'' he said in an essay for Communication Quarterly in 1982. ''On an analytical level, I found the composition flawed and inaccurate.''


But in art, there is sometimes a distinction to be made between fact and truth. Gordon thinks one thing that gets close to the essential truth of Kent State is, in fact, a novel: Not in Vain by Gerald Green, who co-wrote the script for the 1981 Kent State.

''It's been mostly overlooked,'' Gordon said. ''That really deserves a second look by people at Kent.''

Nor has Kent State faded entirely from memory, or the arts. Besides poetry and visual-arts efforts, there have been documentaries including the current Fire in the Heartland, in which Miller examines in detail student activism in Kent going back years before the gunshots.

Plays include Kent State: A Requiem, by J. Gregory Payne, who also teaches at Emerson College and was a historical consultant on 1981's Kent State. He says the play has been performed at more than 150 colleges and universities over the last 34 years, and will be staged again at Kent this fall.

There is even a children's history book, Kent State, in a Cornerstones of Freedom series.

England has a self-described ''progressive/psychedelic/rock'' band called Four Dead In Ohio, the name taken from the chorus of Young's song. While the band members weren't even born in 1970, guitarist Doug Mallett said via e-mail that ''we thought it was a strong and distinctive name and we also like that it has a significant historical background.'' At the same time, he said, ''a lot of people who come to our shows ask where the name came from.''



 

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