Saturday, December 3, 2011

December 3: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, "Ohio"

Artist: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
Song: "Ohio"
Album: Ohio (single)
Year: 1970

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While there is little arguing that its primary role is that of pure entertainment, there is no question that music is also one of the most important vehicles for social awareness and change within society.  All across the decades and genres, musicians have been using their talents to make the general public aware of the issues that they face, and one can point to a number of different songs as being the primary force behind some of the most significant moments in music history.  Though there are examples of this idea all across music history, during the late 1960's and early 1970's, such songs were far more abundant, and few groups released a larger number of perfect examples than the super-group combination: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.  Their names alone stand today as some of the most highly revered in all of music history, and yet it is their amazing vocal work and unforgettable lyrics that have taken on lives of their own.  The way that the quartet were able to bring a powerful sense of rebellion within the more mellow sounds of folk music can be seen as the epitome of the spirit of that time period, and there are a number of songs in the recorded catalog of the group that remain absolute classics to this day.  However, one can make the case that there is no more powerful or important a song in the history of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young than their unrelenting, razor-sharp 1970 single, "Ohio."

Truth be told, there is no single aspect of "Ohio" that is anything less than unforgettable, and it begins with the edgy, impossible to forget tone from Neil Young's guitar.  This sound would become one of his most defining elements, and yet it seems to carry a special tone when used on "Ohio."  It is the way that his more harsh sounding introduction gives way to the more "standard" sway of other songs in the catalog of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young which makes the song so unique.  The multiple-guitar sound found here is far more aggressive than almost any other track the group recorded, and this perfectly mirrors the overall sentiment and driving force behind the single.  It is the way that there is a rather unsettling, almost looming quality to the guitars that separate them from the rest of the bands' music, and one can easily assume that this was quite intentional.  However, it is also the rhythm section of drummer John Barbata and bassist Calvin Samuels which makes "Ohio" so distinctive, as their performance lends a very strict marching sound to the song.  With each strike of the drums, one can feel the tension and the dark, military-esque tone of the song cannot be ignored.  The way that all of these sounds come together to create an amazing level of tension, yet remain musically sound is one of the many reasons that Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young stand so far beyond their peers, and few songs showed this ability better than "Ohio."

However, as is the case with many of the songs of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, "Ohio" is all about the singing and lyrics, as they may be the best the group ever had to offer.  Neil Young's lead vocals throughout the song have a power and presence that he rarely achieved elsewhere, and when the group moves into the harmonies, they are equally as impressive.  Yet it is the focused frustration of all four singers that can be felt throughout which makes "Ohio" such a significant musical achievement, and one can easily assume that this is due to the fact that the song was recorded just a few weeks after the incident which it describes.  "Ohio" was written in response to the photographs published in LIFE magazine of the notorious "student shootings" that occurred at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.  Four students were killed when Ohio National Guard troops opened fire on a group of around seventy students who were protesting against the invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.  The news of the incident quickly spread, and as the story goes, Young quickly wrote the song and the single was rushed to release even though the group already had a single being promoted on radio stations.  The recording session for "Ohio" was emotional and taxing on all involved, and one can hear David Crosby almost breaking to tears during his soft lament that can be heard as "Ohio" fades out.

The impact of "Ohio" stands as one of the largest and most important in the entire history of recorded music.  While countless musicians before them had written pointed and angry songs against "the powers that be," it is the fact that Neil Young decided to directly "call out" then-President Richard Nixon in the lyrics that sets "Ohio" apart from other such recordings.  In many ways, it was this reality which made it "acceptable" for later performers to directly attack or name their frustrations, and one cannot overlook what a courageous act this was during that time period.  In fact, it was due to this reason that the song was banned from almost every radio station in the United States, and yet by the time this ban occurred, the song had already been played enough that the counter-culture had taken it on as one of their rallying cries.  Even more than four decades after the song was first released, "Ohio" remains just as powerful and important as ever, and one cannot help but be completely captivated by this brilliant musical performance.  As the years have passed, artists ranging from The Isley Brothers to Mott The Hoople have recorded their own versions of "Ohio," as well as a rather powerful version from DEVO.  The latter is significant as two members of the band were actually on the Kent State campus at the time the shootings occurred.  Yet none of these later recordings come even remotely close to the power and mood of the original, and there are few songs in history that are as important for so many reasons as one finds in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's unforgettable 1970 single, "Ohio."

1 comment:

PowerPortal.US said...

Swing on by to Jazz Refreshed- I just landed you a front row seat to a piece of music I just heard for the first time. Leap Year Jam of the Day