ASHTABULA, Ohio – From hard-hitting lyrics against the Vietnam War to demands for peace, equality and justice, music from the era of the Kent State shootings spoke to the issues of the time.
Protest songs are an American tradition, starting with "Yankee Doodle," which is said to have been composed by British soldiers to mock their counterparts in the Continental Army but was appropriated and bounced back at them by the colonials, according to David Perusek, professor of anthropology at Kent State University at Ashtabula.
Perusek was scheduled to speak on protest songs of the era as part of university's commemoration of the May 4, 1970 shootings before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down related events.
Perusek shared his knowledge of the protest songs, as well as his thoughts on the music and its artists.
• Woody Guthrie: "This Land Is Your Land"
Guthrie came out of Oklahoma, the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, writing and singing union songs and songs of the working class while playing them on an acoustic guitar that bore the message, "This Machine Kills Fascists."
"Guthrie, whose son Arlo has performed at KSU, is widely regarded as a foremost progenitor of American folk and protest music," Perusek said. "Pete Seeger, who took up the torch from Guthrie and carried it until his death a few years ago at the age of 94, has been nearly as significant a figure."
Their work inspired many others, including Bob Dylan ("The Times They Are a’ Changing”), Peter, Paul and Mary (“If I Had a Hammer”) and Joan Baez (“Blowin’ in the Wind”). Baez played at Woodstock, Civil Rights demonstrations and anti-war rallies. Peter, Paul and Mary walked and performed at the March on Washington, alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in August 1963.
• The Kingston Trio: "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
Some protest songs of the Vietnam War era rose high on the Billboard charts. One of the first was the Kingston Trio hit co-written by Seeger, who wrote the first three stanzas while on a flight to Cleveland to perform at Oberlin College.
"In the cycle of the song, as it moves to its conclusion, young men have gone to soldiers, soldiers to graveyards, graveyards to flowers and flowers back to young girls," Perusek said. "The song ends asking, 'When will they ever learn?'"
• Barry McGuire: "Eve of Destruction"
In 1965, McGuire, formerly of the New Christy Minstrels, released what was probably the most dramatic protest song of the decade, Perusek said.
"Although as controversial as could be at the time and banned by lots of radio stations around the country, it hit No. 1 on the charts," he said. "It went on to play an important role in lowering the voting age in the U.S. from 21 to 18."
• Edwin Starr: "War"
It should be no surprise that a powerful No.1 song of 1970 was simply called "War," written and performed by Edwin Starr, who gets right to the point: "War, huh yeah. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing."
This song was originally written for the Temptations, but was rejected for fear of alienating the group's fans. "Too bad for the Temptations. 'War' reached No. 1 and ranked No. 5 overall for 1970," Perusek said.
• Richie Havens with Lou Gossett Jr.: "Handsome Johnny"
Gossett, a folk singer and actor, along with Havens, played that song at Woodstock and at several performances in Kent over the years, Perusek said.
"I very literally bumped into (Havens) during a march against the second U.S. invasion of Iraq as it made its way through downtown Kent on May 4, 2004," he said. "He died of a heart attack in April of 2013 but his music lives on and his spectacular performance at Woodstock can always be seen on YouTube and in the documentary movie about the 1969 festival at Yasgur's farm."
• The Doors: "Light My Fire."
Perhaps the strangest, certainly the most singular, connection of music to May 4 stems from the burning of the campus' ROTC building on the evening of May 2, 1970, Perusek said.
"It is not known to this day who started the fire, only that it began after the building had been surrounded by police for something like an hour or more," Perusek said. "Also, that fire, in a wood-framed building already scheduled for demolition, became a pretext for summoning the National Guard. But while it raged, Kent State students, political and apolitical alike, flooded the phone lines of local radio stations with requests for this 1967 chart topper by The Doors."
• Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: "Ohio"
The song most widely associated with May 4 is a song about that day itself.
'"Ohio,' by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, was released a few weeks after the shootings and, despite being banned by many radio stations, quickly rose to No. 1," Perusek said. "It remained on the charts for seven weeks that summer."
In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine named it "one of the greatest songs of all time."
• Holly Near: "It Could Have Been Me"
Perusek said he always ends his presentation by paying tribute to the four KSU students who died on May 4, 1970.
Near wrote and first performed "It Could Have Been Me" on May 4, 1974 on the commons in Kent during a commemoration featuring Jane Fonda as the keynote speaker.
"The song has been and remains an anthem in the still on-going quest for the truth about May 4th and, with truth, some measure of justice for the victims of May 4th," Perusek said. "It pays tribute to their lives, their youth, their sacrifice and the cost of freedom."
In memory of Allison Krause, Sandy Scheuer, Jeff Miller and Bill Schroeder, Perusek encourages everyone to listen to "It Could Have Been Me."