Neil Young: Ohio Meaning
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.
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...
1TOP RATED#1 top rated interpretation:
May 4th 1970: Four Kent State students killed by their own country’s army.
All over America, protests like this one at Kent State college were breaking out, all with the same theme, the Anti-Vietnam war movement. This headline enraged so many people.
Within hours of this terrible event singer/songwriter Neil Young was scrawling the lyrics to a song that expressed all of his rage and horror towards this headline, the immortal anti-war hymn, ‘Ohio’. His band, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, were so eager to release the song that they only took a few takes to record it. It was liberated only 10 days after the shootings, reflecting the horrific social injustice of the events of that early May day.
Young was a widely outspoken musician at the time, and always relished the chance to express an opinion through song. ‘Ohio’ provided perhaps one of his most famous opportunities to do so. In its resentful lyrics and crashing guitars the song immediately captures all of Young’s idealism and fury.
‘Ohio’ opens with a cool electric guitar solo, followed by a steady, rhythmic drumbeat that sounds like a marching tune. Young cleverly uses the drumbeat to evoke an anthemic military theme that, ironically, would become the anthem to the counter-culture generation. ‘Ohio’ demands attention, and, no matter what your opinion is about it, you find yourself listening, obeying, angered and repulsed.
In only 10 lines, ‘Ohio’ is able to capture all of the, shock, outrage, and frustration felt towards the government in the wake of the shootings. People all over America were already standing opposed to the government and their war in Vietnam, and this song stirred them up even more.
The lyrics open with the ominous ‘Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming’. ‘Tin soldiers’ refers to the Ohio National Guard, who were called in by the Mayor of Kent, when he believed the student protests were starting to get out of hand. The metaphor of ‘Tin soldiers’ shows how they blindly follow orders, manipulated by Nixon, the child who playfully manoeuvres them, handling their deadly weapons as if it were all a game. It’s as if he was vicariously watching from above, as the four helpless students were cut down in cold blood. “We're finally on our own” descibes how we can't count on our country, our army, or even our President to be on our side.
The song was banned in some parts of the country because of its anti-Nixon stance. Many people, including Young, believed the events at Kent State college were all President Nixon’s fault, and that he should have handled the situation better. Crosby said that Young keeping Nixon's name in the lyrics was 'the bravest thing I ever heard.' When Young over-confidently barks out ‘Nixon’s coming’ in the lyrics, you can hear the challenge in his voice. It’s as though at the end of the song he’s going to step back and say, ‘That’s what I think of you. What are you going to do about it?’ Young seemed to be well aware of the consequences, but appeared to be indignant and looking for someone to blame.
When Young sings ‘This summer I hear the drumming’ he straight away puts the image of a group of young protesters, cruelly surrounded and helpless, as the Tin Soldiers approach, marching to the beat of a drum. The repetition of the line “Four dead in Ohio” further drums the horror into your brain as Young evenly and matter-of -factly reports the details.
’What if you knew her/And found her dead on the ground’ bluntly brings the song down to earth, and makes you feel it. The lyrics are no longer remote and impersonal but specific and heart breaking. The rhetorical question really makes you think about how you would feel if it were your family or friends that were the chosen victims of the massacre.
“How can you run when you know?” forces us as a society to confront our conscience. It questions how we can turn our backs, choosing to ignore the distasteful events. The lyrics direct a personal question begging not only the world to rise up in unity, what are you prepared to do about it as an individual.
This is especially true at the end, as the song is fading out, and you can hear the mourning voice of Crosby in the background, keening ‘Four dead, why?’ ‘Why did they die?’ ‘How many more?’ It not only mourns the four dead in Ohio, but it also asks how many more are going to suffer from this war?
The fact that many of the students who were shot were not involved in the protest, merely passing by, almost seemed like a metaphor of the Vietnam War, and the innocent civilians killed in that.
2TOP RATED#2 top rated interpretation:anonymous May 26th 2006 report
This song is most definitely about the 1970 shootings at Kent University in Ohio. Four people were killed by troops of the Ohio National Guard because they were protesting the invasion of Cambodia in the Vietnam War. Although the protests were sometimes violent, the soldiers took unnecessary action when they fired into the crowd of unarmed students, again, killing four people. All four were students at the university, and only two were actaully involved in the protests. Anyways, this song goes, "Tin Soldiers and Nixon's coming, we're finally on our own, this summer I hear the drummin', four dead in Ohio, gotta get down to it, soldiers are cutting us down...." Tin soldiers are the National Guard soldiers, Nixon's coming refers to Nixon's orders to invade Cambodia, four dead in Ohio are the four killed students, and soldiers are cutting us down is the soldiers opening fire on the unarmed students, killing four and wounding nine. After Neil Young released this song, he was quoted, "I feel upset with myself for commercializing the massacre, and making money off of the killings."
3TOP RATED#3 top rated interpretation:anonymous Nov 15th 2007 report
You're wrong it is cutting us down, not gunnin us down.
anonymous Sep 30th 2018 report
I was 8 years old at the time, so my memory is not to be totally trusted, but this is what I remember.
Watching the news with my family, shortly after the Kent State shootings, a reporter asked the Attorney General, John Mitchel, to comment on the National Guard killing 4 students at Kent State, and he replied, on camera: "Should have been done long ago."
My mom jumped up and started shouting at the TV, she was so angry at that, I had never seen her so mad.
I was old enough to know killing student protesters was bad, but not old enough to understand how bad it was, for the top law enforcement official in the USA to not only condone the shootings but wish for them to have been done earlier, and by implication, more often.
After my mom calmed down, she explained all this to me.
A few months later, the song came out.
So, that's my memory of what the phrase "should have been done long ago" means, Neil Young is referencing the on camera quote of the Attorney General.
anonymous Aug 18th 2017 report
Isn't Neil Young a Canadian?
anonymous Apr 8th 2014 report
What's the mood in this song, the feeling?
anonymous Sep 15th 2012 report
"Should have been done long ago". While it seems horrifying now there were a lot of people at the time that hated my generation and thought the students got what they had coming to them. The fact that random students not involved in the protesting were killed doesn't seemed to have mattered. So "Should have been done long ago" could be quoting people who felt that way.
anonymous May 18th 2011 report
I am curious to know what is meant by "should have been done long ago." Anyone? Thanks.
anonymous Jul 11th 2006 report
It's not 'cutting us down' it's 'gunning us down' as in they are shooting innocent people. Like two of the girls were... not trying to falsify your interp...it is dead on except the lyric.
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