May 4, 1970 marked the 40th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State University, when four students were killed and nine wounded by the Ohio National Guard during student protests of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. As part of the commemorations, the Rock Hall’s Education department put together a panel at KSU on rock and roll and the Vietnam war. There are, of course, rock and roll songs about the Kent State shootings—most famously, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s single “Ohio”/”Find the Cost of Freedom,” recorded just weeks after May 4th. But I wanted to tell a wider story about the role that rock and roll played in our understanding of the Vietnam war, how protestors, soldiers, and civilians made sense of the war and its aftermath through the music. It was, as Samuel Freedman wrote, the first war to be “fought to a rock and roll soundtrack.”
I spent the afternoon on the KSU campus, listening to the many speakers who came together as part of the commemoration. Speakers included Florence Schroeder, mother of slain student William Schroeder; Russ Miller, brother of slain student Jeffrey Miller; Joe Lewis, a student who was shot and wounded; Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers; Gene Young, an alumnus of Jackson State University, the site of shootings ten days after Kent State, where two people were killed; and Gerald Casale of DEVO, who was a student at KSU on May 4th. Country Joe McDonald closed out the afternoon with “For What It’s Worth” and “I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag.” It was an intense day, with emotions running high for everyone—a reminder that history is up for grabs, that fighting for the meaning of events really matters.
Our panel brought together Country Joe McDonald, Dr. Hugo Keesing, the curator of a forthcoming box set from Bear Family, …Next Stop is Vietnam: The War on Record 1961-2008, and Doug Bradley, co-author (with Craig Werner) of a book exploring how veterans used music while in country, We Gotta Get Out Of This Place: Music, Memory and the Vietnam War. Joe and Doug were involved in putting the box set as well—Joe contributed an essay to the book that accompanies the cds, and also turned Hugo on to music by veterans that he’s been collecting for years (there’s a list on Joe’s web site). Doug and Craig Werner also contributed an essay to the book—veterans describe the power of songs like “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” “Riders on the Storm” and “Sloop John B.”
We had a wide-ranging discussion that included everything from Joe’s haunting “Mourning Blues” and “The Girl Next Door” from his album Vietnam Experience to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” to “The Ballad of the Yellow Beret” by The Beach Bums (featuring a very young Bob Seger) to The Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” Hugo described the contents of the box, which includes over 300 selections: protest songs, pro-war songs, songs recorded in country, and songs recorded in the last three decades about the war’s aftermath. It also includes two songs about Kent State: The Third Condition’s “Monday in May” (Sundi, 1970) and Barbara Dane’s “The Kent State Massacre” (Paredon, 1973), as well as excerpts from news report from a Kent State student who was on site that day, Arthur Krause, father of slain student Allison Krause, and Brigadier General Robert Canterbury of the Ohio National Guard.
We will be drawing from this material for our next Rock and Roll Night School on May 26th on rock and roll and the Vietnam war, as we explore how this music that changed the world reflected changing attitudes about Vietnam.
You can find out more information about …Next Stop is Vietnam on the Bear Family web site or on Facebook.
Below, view a video from the panel on May 4th: