As the cymbals join the march, the bass and drums kick in, and a lead guitar takes the song towards the first verse. The song marches forward with an intensity that suits the warning Young delivers. Tin soldiers and Nixons coming, Young sings to the hippie generation whose counter-cultural revolution ran into a hail of National Guard bullets at Kent State. Were finally on our own, he warns, citing the lack of protection provided by the law to peacefully protest.
Non-violent protest was the weapon of choice for the hippie generation, but with the deaths at Kent State, the Constitutional right protected no one. Young sees it as sign of the true state of things and a hint of things to come: This summer I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio. Young can hear the soldiers on the march, and knows that no one is safe. Backed by the slow march of the music, the words Young uses in the first verse to describe the situation at Kent State and the country are filled with images of oppression, fear, alienation, and death.
Throughout the sixties, peaceful protest brought about waves of social change, though authorities resorted to gas, fire hoses, dogs, and clubs. Kent State showed that now they were shooting to kill, and by naming Nixon, Young places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the highest levels of government. The chorus explodes with more guitars and the march of the drumbeat increases, bringing with it a heightened sense of urgency. Gotta get down to it, soldiers are cutting us down, the harmonies of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young sing of the new reality.
Should have been done long ago, could refer to the continued injustice and violence, or the idea that the protest movement needed to become more active; the line could even be a pointed reference to the sentiment of many right-wing citizens at the time that the protest movement was made up of traitors that deserved to be shot (Ohio, 2007). Marching along, the singers ask, What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground? /How can you run when you know? This is a direct reference to the iconic photographs of the shootings, including the one on the cover of Life magazine that inspired Young to write the song.
American soldiers killed young American woman on a college campus, and the question posed by CSN&Y forces the listener to think of this happening to a sister or daughter or wife. Ohio is a distinctly American song, though Young is originally a Canadian. Like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, Neil Young observed the turbulent surroundings and relayed it in his music.
The questions and doubts these artists pose about American culture are only matched by the hope that permeates their music. In Ohio, through all the menace and regret, the American ideals of freedom and perseverance shine through. The foundation of American society includes the citizens right to repair the ills of the system through education and discourse. Ohio lives up to American ideals by contributing to this discourse and reaffirming freedom of speech and social criticism.