I have three vivid memories from that night. One is a wine bottle that tore the air between another reporter and me at eye level. (That would have hurt.) Another is the caustic nastiness of tear gas. (That did hurt.) The third is from several hours into the night after police had pushed the confrontation out of town and onto one of the dormitory quads. A line of students threw rocks and bottles while a line of cops dodged the brickbats and fired gas pellets. What I recall so clearly is a student in an upstairs dorm room who opened his window, propped a stereo speaker on the sill, and blared out the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young anti-anthem “Ohio.”
Some of my generation — I am now 66 — probably believe we invented protest music. Just like we invented rock ’n’ roll, premarital sex, cannabis smoking, and really boring antiwar assemblies called teach-ins. Let’s just say our grasp of history had its weak points. In the 1840s, the Hutchinson Family Singers toured the country protesting slavery by singing abolition songs, on one occasion for President John Tyler in the White House. (According to John Gac’s “Singing for Freedom: The Hutchinson Family Singers and the Nineteenth-Century Culture of Reform,” that didn’t go over so well.) Protest singer Joe Hill plied his trade on behalf of the Industrial Workers of the World in the early 1900s. In 1915, Alfred Bryan responded to the possibility of the United States entering the First World War by penning, “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.” There was Bob Miller and “Farm Relief Blues”—“We’re breakin’ our backs/With a carload of tax/How much longer must we wait?”—in 1929. Aunt Molly Jackson and “Ragged Hungry Blues” in 1931, Billie Holiday and “Strange Fruit” in 1939, Woody Guthrie and “This Land Is Your Land” in 1940, the Weavers and Pete Seeger in the 1940s and ’50s. I could go on like this for a while.
But a story repeated often enough becomes the narrationis populi, and my generation’s protest song narrative situates the crest of musical indignation in the 1960s: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Country Joe McDonald, “Blowing in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Masters of War,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Universal Soldier,” “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag.” “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night/Alive as you and me.” The portion of Dylan’s 60-year career devoted to protest spanned only about 20 months, but he will never shake the association. If you’re my age, try not picturing him performing in a faux-humble denim shirt and work boots.
The shifting rhythms of protest music
People still write and perform protest songs, but it’s been a long time since they counted for much in popular culture. No, that’s not true — hip-hop and rap have produced any number of potent protests. What I meant to say is, since the Sixties, protest songs have lost their cultural standing with white people. This leads to a knotty question: What did all those righteous anthems accomplish?
I may be too much the skeptic, but I suspect the emblematic recordings of Dylan et al. rarely impelled anyone to man the barricades unless you count nudging the suggestible toward mild civil disobedience. That’s not what those songs were for; they weren’t triggers, they were signifiers. They were sung to bond the faithful. It’s no accident that so many 1960s marches and rallies included somebody with a guitar and a conspicuously earnest vocal delivery. Protest songs reassured their audience that they were among like-minded, right-thinking people. You heard the song, you knew the song, you realized everyone around you knew the song, and now you felt safer and stronger. The ritual reassured that there were thousands like you: I’m with my people, and my people have an activated social conscience. We march and chant and protest, and we listen to protest songs from the stage between rousing and not-so-rousing speeches.
That’s not a bad use for music. But the noteworthy protest songs of the 1960s, when examined as communiques to the resistance, suffer from the same thing — a gentility that airs grievance in a vocabulary and syntax designed not to unnerve a white, educated, prosperous audience. Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” was clever and articulate. But it was as passive a bit of musing as “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The latter stands against the great evils plaguing 1960s America, war and racism, then delivers not a stirring call to action but a tepid lament: “The answer, my friends, is blowin’ in the wind.” Listen to the record, shrug sadly, and reach for a refill of Chardonnay. Subsequent songs would prove that Dylan reserved his passion and aggression for former friends and ex-lovers. His songs of social grievance never matched the indignant venom of his romantic grievances.
Protest music as comfort — and as rage
There’s a second kind of protest song, though. This one is not meant to make a room full of the converted feel better about themselves. This one is a cathartic blast of rage. Joan Baez’s crystalline voice reassured her audience that they were on the right side of the arc of history. Neil Young’s raw, ragged vocal on “Ohio” warned his audience that they had been declared outlaws and were caught in a conflict that could get them killed.
The story of the song is a story of passionate urgency. Young wrote it in a few hours, two weeks after the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four student protestors at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. The other members of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young hastily convened in a Los Angeles studio and recorded the song in only two or three takes (Graham Nash recalled the session lasting 90 minutes). Within days, Atlantic Records had pressed the record and gotten it to radio stations throughout the country.
Despite the haste of its creation, “Ohio” is a masterpiece of concision and poetic nuance. The song has only four chords, and Stephen Stills, David Crosby, and Young tuned their guitars down to what’s known as D modal Celtic tuning, which naturally creates a dark droning quality. Young launches “Ohio” with an aggressive riff set to an ominous marching cadence. The first verse is a pair of alarming bulletins that bracket his response to the awful event: “Tin soldiers and Nixon comin’/We’re finally on our own/This summer I hear the drumming/Four dead in Ohio.”
The six-line chorus can be heard two ways, embodying the inchoate times. On one listen, you might hear a clarion call, with the third line reinforcing the first: “Gotta get down to it/Soldiers are gunning 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?” But the chorus also can be heard as an anguished conversation. An embittered patriotic supporter of the war declares it’s about time the government cracked down. “Should have been done long ago.” How can you say that? is the response. They are gunning us down! That dead girl in the Life magazine photograph? What if you knew her? What if she were your daughter? How can you run from the truth of the government marching on campus and killing college kids?
There’s a last bit of songwriting mastery, a touch so subtle it’s accomplished by a lone apostrophe. In the first verse, Young sings, “Tin soldiers and Nixon comin’” — a headline set in past tense. But the second time he sings it, the line has changed: “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s comin’.” Present progressive tense. Nixon and the soldiers with their bayonets — they’re comin’ for us again. The first verse delivered terrible news; the second verse declares that it’s happening again, and this time we fight.
“Blowin’ in the Wind” voiced resignation. “Ohio” gives voice to rage. The first is a fine song. But the latter is a far better story.
A form of journalism
I think we should consider protest songs as a form of journalism. Advocacy journalism, to be sure, with no use for neutrality, but journalism all the same. Protest songs report events, document injustice, and prompt questions. They comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Protest singers are muckrakers. They are not always fair, frequently overwrought and naive, and their stories don’t always stand up well to fact-checking. But the same can be said of a good bit of activist journalism. That doesn’t diminish its importance. The songs tell the stories of their time, and the true endure. I can barely remember a lyric from all that conscientious coffeehouse protest music. I will never forget, “Four dead in Ohio.”
Dale Keiger has been a scribbler-for-hire for more than 45 years. Most recently, he was editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine. His new project, Play This Record Loud, revisits the impact of 1960s music on a generation.