In May 1970, Neil Young came to his bandmates David Crosby, Graham Nash and Stephen Stills with a powerful new song: "Ohio." After three days of agitated student-led protests of the invasion of Cambodia, the already incendiary situation at Kent State University exploded on the afternoon of May 4, 1970, when 28 National Guardsmen fired as many as 67 shots into a crowd of people. The 13-second barrage killed four students – Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer – and injured nine more.
In the wake of the tragedy, President Richard Nixon's military orders in Southeast Asia came under increasingly fervent scrutiny, while John Paul Filo's Pulitzer prize–winning photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio screaming beside the lifeless body of Jeffrey Miller was forever ingrained into the American social consciousness as a poignant reminder of the domestic turmoil during the Vietnam Era. Other images from the shooting appeared as part of the May 15,1970 Life magazine cover story, an issue that reportedly found its way to Neil Young via David Crosby.
In the liner notes of his 1977 anthology, Decade, Young wrote: "It's still hard to believe I had to write this song. It's ironic that I capitalized on the death of these American students. Probably the biggest lesson ever learned at an American place of learning. My best CSNY cut. Recorded totally live in Los Angeles. David Crosby cried after this take."
Making A 60s Supergroup for a New Decade
After stints in the Byrds (Crosby) and Buffalo Springfield (Stills), a triumphant Woodstock appearance and a well-received self-titled debut album in 1969, Crosby, Stills and Nash were established as a low-key supergroup that emphasized singing and songwriting above all, and their example contributed to the evolution of the singer/songwriter movement in the Seventies.
Latecomer Young's rougher, more immediate style did not always mesh easily with CSN's polished vocal harmonies, though the ostensibly disparate approaches coalesced nicely on 1970's Déjà Vu. Still, "Ohio" was a rare, spontaneous triumph.
Just weeks after the shooting, the foursome gathered at The Record Plant studio in Los Angeles, California. Legendary recording engineer Bill Halverson, who had previously worked with the band, supervised the session. In an interview with Tony Bittick, Halverson recalled: "I don't recall us doing more than two or three takes of it with live vocal and live harmonies, and everybody chiming in…. The mood was very intense." That intensity was captured in the song's bristling energy – the antithesis of beloved Crosby, Stills and Nash tunes like "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" and "Marrakesh Express." From the opening line ("Tin soldiers and Nixon coming") through Young's tortured guitar fills to the scruffy unison vocals that carry the song to its electrifying climax, this brooding lamentation smoldered with disbelief and rage.
Realizing that the song needed a complementary b-side, the band recorded Stills' original composition, "Find The Cost Of Freedom." Halverson arranged four chairs, four vocal microphones and one guitar mic (for Stills) so that the group would be "knee-to-knee sitting facing each other," he recalled. "In 15 minutes, we had 'Find The Cost Of Freedom.'"
The single for "Ohio" with its b-side "Find The Cost Of Freedom" was released in June 1970 and despite the fact many AM stations refused to play the track, FM stations across the country were spinning it. Live versions of both songs were included on CSNY's double-live album 4 Way Street in 1971, the same year Young would leave the band. Of the political content that marked many of their songs, Nash has said: “In speaking for ourselves, [listeners] recognized that we were speaking for them, too.”