May 4 Historian Reflects on Singer David Crosby's Ties to Kent State
In September 1969, Kent State University began the 1969-1970 school year, and the band Crosby, Stills & Nash released the song, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” The third line of the song pronounces “I am yours, you are mine.” As students, we loved the song and the album on which it would appear for its new musical ways, sung to a generation seeking difference to create positive change.
Near the end of the school year, on May 4, 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard unexpectedly and without warning shot and killed four Kent State students and wounded nine others. The bond —“I am yours, you are mine,”— was galvanized that day – the day that broke our hearts and those of David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young. Young’s entry into the band in late 1969 created Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young or CSNY.
The same day that Crosby showed his bandmates the May 15, 1970, issue of Life magazine illustrating the shootings, Young wrote the song “Ohio.” In the documentary “David Crosby: Remember My Name” Young commented, “David Crosby has a way of bringing things into focus. That’s what woke me up.” When CSNY recorded “Ohio” on May 21, the president of their recording company, Ahmet Ertegun, insisted, “This record has to go out tomorrow.”
Over the decades, each member of CSNY remained connected to what the world calls the Kent State shootings. Neil Young included “Ohio” on his retrospective album “Decade,” released in 1977.
In 1997, CSN memorably sang a cappella, “Find the Cost of Freedom” on the KSU Commons during the annual May 4 commemoration program. In 2011, when the May 4 Visitors Center was reaching completion, Crosby, Stills and Nash, together for the filming of a documentary on Woody Guthrie, made time to record individual messages for Gallery 3, which examines the impact of the shootings and their meaning for today.
CSN generously also gave permission for “Find the Cost of Freedom” to be used in Gallery 2, which details what happened on May 4. As the song plays, visitors view photographs taken by friends and family of Allison Krause, Jeff Miller, Sandy Scheuer and Bill Schroeder, the four students killed on May 4, 1970, and read the names of the nine wounded: Joe Lewis, John Cleary, Tom Grace, Alan Canfora, Dean Kahler, Doug Wrentmore, Jim Russell, Robbie Stamps and Scott MacKenzie. A box of tissues sits on the floor nearby.
Crosby accepted Kent Stage owner Tom Simpson’s invitation to play at his downtown venue in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Simpson has noted that “Croz” even planned to play the Kent Stage a fourth time until COVID-19 intervened. From the first concert on, Crosby succumbed to the venue and its audience and told us how much he loved being there. We did too.
Earlier in the day before his 2017 Kent Stage performance, Crosby spent many hours touring the May 4 Visitors Center and the May 4 site, at times being filmed by the crew sent by Cameron Crowe, producer of “Remember My Name.” No doubt to capture Crosby in the moment, Crowe also interviewed him via video conferencing during these hours as part of creating the documentary. I was there to open the Visitors Center and, as it turned out, talk to Crosby as well, who was moved when he came upon his video message in the Impact gallery.
During his long visit, yes, I had him sign my CSN album from 1969. More importantly, I thanked him for “Ohio,” telling him that the song was the earliest beacon, here in the epicenter, that shined through the torment in the aftermath of the shootings.
Exiled from campus within hours, I spent every morning and afternoon crying as I cut out and paperclipped articles in the daily newspapers, which were filled with misinformation. “Ohio” was able to reach us from out there through the radio, which we had grown up listening to.
Other public offerings of truth and light did not make it through in those earliest days. To me, to a generation, “Ohio” meant voices that heard us, spoke to us and told our story. It made clear, too, that this was a story that had to do with everyone.
Crosby was with us through the end and left us with a new gift. In the May 4 Visitors Center, he talked about at length how meaningful the May 4 story could be for young people today in dealing with their world of constant division and gun violence. In “Remember My Name,” he becomes a teacher during May 4 scenes. The May 4 sequences, remarkably, are placed between the two film parts that depict the devastating death of Crosby’s deepest love, Christine Hinton, who was killed in a car accident at the age of 21. Crosby expresses his sorrow, sense of helplessness, and dismay that there is nothing that can be done when Christine Hinton dies. The film is arranged so that his personal loss becomes a counterpoint to the generation’s loss on May 4. Educating others with the facts and continuing the pursuit of truth and justice offer the possibility for change.
Crosby says about the Kent State shootings and “Ohio:”
“It made me feel good that I was able to stand up for what I believe. I think this is probably the best job of being troubadours or being town criers that we ever did. ... It lit the whole country on fire. There were protests on every campus in America. ... Belief is good. Didn’t work out – yet. But we’re trying.
David Crosby, we remember you.
Laura Davis, Ph.D., Kent State University Emeritus Professor of English, was a freshman at Kent State when she witnessed the shootings on May 4, 1970. She became a faculty member at Kent State, team teaching “May 4, 1970 & Its Aftermath” with Carole Barbato, Ph.D. With Barbato, she co-created the May 4 Walking Tour and May 4 Visitors Center, through consultation with hundreds of members of the campus community, the public, scholars and design professionals and supported by funding from the Ohio Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Davis has provided many May 4 tours and interviews to students and the media and has appeared in documentary films on May 4, including the Emmy award-winning, “Kent State: The Day the War Came Home.” Her collaborative May 4 publications include: “Democratic Narrative, History, and Memory” and “This We Know: A Chronology of the Shootings at Kent State, May 1970.” Davis, Barbato and Jerry Lewis, Ph.D., worked with Mark Seeman, Ph.D., to have the May 4 site placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010. Davis and Seeman worked with colleagues Brad Keefer, Ph.D., Mindy Farmer, Ph.D. and Lori Boes to achieve National Historic Landmark status for the site in 2016.