I was going to post this a couple days ago when it would have been slightly more appropriate, but to be honest I didn’t want to put a bummer on everyone’s Star Warsy celebration of the May the Forth Be With You. Then comes Cinco de Mayo, and who wants to tread on the celebration of a neighboring country’s big victory, eh?
But May the fourth was an important milestone of a different type here in the US, that being the anniversary of the Kent State shootings—and, perhaps more relevant to what I’m going to talk about here, the event that created a remarkable piece of protest art that followed.
I’ve finished writing this thing, and I realize that it’s long, and that it meanders. Perhaps it’s so long and meanders so far afield that you’ll not finish it. But I hope you will. It goes somewhere in the end. I promise. Maybe. [grin]
But I’m going to start here: at a convention I once attended where a writer was talking about history and how most events don’t really change its course much. I asked him if he thought the Kent State killings had made a difference or not, and after only a very brief moment he said it was a non-event. This startled me. Kent State. A non-event. I couldn’t believe that four college kids murdered by the National Guard while they were protesting the Vietnam War could ever be considered a non-event. That it didn’t make a difference in the path of history.
Protest changes things. It does. In fact, it’s probably the only thing that actually makes real social change. Here’s an interesting post by Mary Robinette Kowal, who says essentially the same thing but in a different vein.
And protest can come in a lot of ways. It can come in the streets, and it can come in letters and in phone calls. It can come in the form of boycotts and strikes, or paintings. It can come in books. It can come on walls. It can come in poems.
In the case of Neil Young, protest about Kent State came in the form of one of the most biting pieces of art ever created. I’m talking, of course, about “Ohio.”
I worry about it, though. We seem to hear it now as (at best) this marker of the past—as a piece of historical pop culture, or maybe even a quaint nod to a past where people actually thought they were making or could make a difference. I’m fairly certain most people who hear it don’t even really stop to take into account the facts of the situation, and the meaning of a government-sponsored action that took four lives. I’m definitely sure that most people don’t think about the fact that a majority of the country actually thought these killings were justified—that the kids shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
It’s just a piece of music on the radio most of the time.
But at the time … man … at the time … and given the value of the piece, it’s one of those things that can still change you if you’ll just let it.
Anyway…I was thinking about this as I pinged my way through a couple bits on Kent State a couple days ago. I was thinking about what I wrote a few days ago about short stories and collections and songs and albums and noise on the radio, and I watched a couple videos of the song, thinking about it. And then I came to this piece. Neil Young, on his own, in front of an audience.
This is what art is, to me.
It’s nothing you’ll ever see on The Voice or any of the numerous Idols or the This Place’s Got Talent things. This is one man, in front of people, doing his thing. It’s a person making a statement. And it’s about a real as you can get.
Neil Young is saying something here.
He’s making you listen.
This is what I want to be doing as I sit down to write every day. It’s what I want to be thinking about. Say something. Make it real. Make it important, if to nobody else make it important to me. I’m not, of course, saying I (or anyone else, for that matter) expect to pen an ever-lasting classic every time I sit down. No one does that—not even the people who are remembered through the years. And, let’s face it, I am no William Faulkner or no Neil Young. But, what I carry away from a piece of art like “Ohio,” is that it’s important to me to have a basic respect for what I’m doing. It’s about being a part of what I create.
I want to be changed by what I write. And, ideally, I figure if that happens, then occasionally I might be able to change the occasional someone else.
I mean, I dare you to actually spend three minutes thinking about the idea of what four dead in Ohio might mean as you watch Neil Young sing “Ohio” here. To really and seriously ponder “what if you knew her and found her dead on the ground,” to think about why these four college kids were killed, and how it came about, and not come away from it with a head full of something that just might change the way you think about the day ahead of you.