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Politics in Music: For What It’s Worth in Ohio

January 14, 2013

by J. Andrew Zalucky


In our previous installment, we looked at two influential songs written by a two equally legendary British bands. For our this article, let’s take a look at a group of American musicians, ones who have made their name in several different bands and helped shape American rock music.

Buffalo Springfield was one of the first American acts to break out after the enormous impact of the “British Invasion” of the mid-1960’s. Though the band only lasted about two years and released three albums, they managed to cement themselves as one of the most legendary rock bands of the era and had two brilliant young musicians who would go on to further success for years to come: Neil Young and Stephen Stills.

As is often the case with bands with only one big hit song, Buffalo Springfield is mainly known for their trademark “For What it’s Worth”. But the title of “one-hit wonder” would not be appropriate for a band so talented and influential. In fact, I would advise listeners in general to avoid “only listening to a band’s hits” in any case, as you would be severely short-changing yourself by doing so. I would imagine that fans of Buffalo Springfield would point to songs like Hot Dusty Roads and Bluebird as classics in their own right. Stephen Stills has a strong, raspy voice that can almost carry a record on its own were it not for the guitar work of Neil Young and Richie Furay.

Anyway, now that I got that out of the way, let’s talk about the band’s hit, as it bears most on our discussion here. Despite its legacy as a protest anthem, it apparently started as a song about street fights and riots between police and young concert-goers on the Sunset Strip in 1966. However, due to its evocative imagery, it took on a second life as part of the soundtrack to the events of the late-60’s: the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War Movement, and the youth counter-culture. To see what I mean, here is selection of three verses, lyrics that make the song’s legacy clear, one beyond what Stephen Stills could have imagined when he first wrote it (Oh! And check out Neil Young’s chops around 1:49, EPIC!!!):

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking’ their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly saying, “hooray for our side”

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
Step out of line, the men come and take you away

Though clearly not intended, For What it’s Worth feels like a prelude and warning for what was to come in the years that followed, which would culminate in events like the tragedy at Kent State on May 4th, 1970. What happened at Kent State? And what preceding events provide the backdrop for what happened on that awful day?

In 1968, Richard Nixon won the Presidential Election on the platform of “peace with honor” in Vietnam, promising to end the war that had torn the nation apart. This would become a rather dubious platform of course, considering that President Johnson and Hubert Humphrey had already engaged in peace talks with North Vietnam. There are even those claim that Nixon and Henry Kissinger “privately assured the South Vietnamese military rulers that an incoming regime would offer them a better deal than would a Democratic one…”The tactic worked,” in that the South Vietnamese junta withdrew from the talks on the eve of the election, thereby destroying the “peace plank” on which the Democrats had contested it.” In light of other revelations about both Nixon and Kissinger, I think there is good reason to believe this assertion, especially considering the way events would go in the following years. (My Republican Grandfather once remarked in conversation once that, “When you think about it…Nixon probably was kind of insane.”)

In the spring of 1970, Nixon sought to advance his policy of “Vietnamization” (the policy whereby control of South Vietnam’s security would be handed over to South Vietnam), by conducting operations in Neutral Cambodia where North Vietnam had set up bases of supply and operations. This would serve first to allow the US Military to withdraw more easily, and second to allow the South Vietnamese to have their borders more secure, easing their defensive operations. Of course, there were those in the Nixon administration that though this would only lead to more domestic unrest in the US, and on a more strategic level, would harm the peace negotiations already underway in Paris. Such voices were ignored and on April 30th, Nixon addressed the nation with his decision to invade Cambodia.

With much of the public already distressed by the aftermath of the Tet Offensive and the My Lai massacre in 1969, this apparent expansion of the war set-off even more unrest and protests from both the anti-war movement, and other facets of American society. This was especially clear on many college campuses, which usually play host to the activist movements of the time. One such school was Kent State University, where after days of protests, the Ohio National Guard was sent in to contain and disperse the protest. After an exchange of tear gas and partial dispersal of the crowd, several national guardsmen started firing at the students, killing 4 students and wounding another 9. Why any of the guardsmen started shooting remains a contested subject to this day, but was probably a combination of confusion, fear, and the simple fact that these National Guardsmen probably had no idea what to do when dealing with a non-violent protest. The event sparked national outrage (some at the students and other at the National Guard) and an almost universal student strike across the country.

Almost immediately afterward, Neil Young wrote the song Ohio and recorded it as part of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. The song, which became a huge hit within weeks of the event, speaks for itself:

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
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 the ground
How can you run when you know?

As for the operation in Cambodia, the results played out much like most of the war did, with initial tactical success on the American side but with long term and in some ways disastrous consequences for the region. In the end, there were probably other ways to secure South Vietnam and to initiate a more effective peace process. And, while its not quite fair to argue causation here, the operation did play a role in the deterioration of conditions in Cambodia which would one day lead to the horrors of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. But as they say, that’s another story.

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