Originally published April 30, 2000
The words still pack a punch: "Four dead in Ohio."
Three decades after those words first catapulted from the lips of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in Ohio, they still capture the seriousness of the tragic shootings at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.
When they were first unleashed on the world, however, shortly after Neil Young saw a report about the shootings on the news, they altered the political landscape.
"I was in college when the shootings happened," says Robert Santelli, director of education at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. "For many people, Ohio became the rallying cry for resistance against what many thought was an unjust war. It became the anthem for the New Left movement. It stirred intense emotions. It told you what was wrong. You could not miss the point."
The point? "Soldiers are gunning us down. . . Four dead in Ohio."
The band's David Crosby traveled to Kent State in 1997 to commemorate the shootings. "The students stood up for their God-given right to protest, and they got slaughtered for it," he said then. "Those people were expressing their constitutional right of assembly and were attacked for it, and they've never been apologized to."
Young doesn't discuss much with journalists these days, especially not the feelings behind his songs. Through a spokeswoman, he turned down a request to discuss Ohio for this article.
However, Young has said he feels Ohio speaks for itself.
And generations of musicians have tapped into what the song says.
Everyone from Tori Amos to Mott the Hoople to Paul Weller has tackled the song during area appearances.
Kent's Dink gave the song a danceable sound for its major-label album Blame It on Tito.
"Three of the five of us went to Kent State, and you can't go to that school without being interested or bludgeoned by information on the event," says Jer Herring, one of the band's singers. "It was our way of paying homage to the event."
Herring says the song was the most political statement Dink ever made. The band did it because the message was so clear.
"You can rant and rave all you want about what happened," he says, "but this song pretty much said it all for us. This was messed up."
The late author James Michener, who chronicled the Kent State shootings, said that of all the material generated by the event, he was most moved by Ohio.
"It did what I could not do," Michener said. "It dealt with it on an emotional basis."
The rock hall's Santelli calls Ohio one of the best songs Young, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, has ever written.
"It would have been a great song if it was about flowers in Texas -- it's a great melody," Santelli says. "He builds up a dramatic tension with the opening guitar riffs. That's part of the genius of his songwriting. You get an idea of what's coming even before the lyrics come in."
But the lyrics put the song in another class.
"The best way to express that much resentment and sadness is the most direct way," he says. "This is a direct diatribe about what was wrong. You could not miss the message."
And that message will be carried on as generation after generation hears the song for the first time -- especially in Northeast Ohio.
"This is where the history that Neil Young sings about occurred," Santelli says. "On anniversaries, especially the 30th one we're about to experience, the song will be very much a focal point."