The conditions are right for the return of protest songs. Will they?
[This was my weekly column for GlobalNews.ca. – AC]
The late ’60s and early ’70s were a time of almost constant protest. People took to the streets across the globe to demand an end to the Vietnam War, which had overflowed into neighbouring countries. They marched for civil rights. Student activism was at an all-time high. There were even assassinations. It felt like the world was burning.
On Monday, May 4, 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard shouldered their rifles and opened fire on a student antiwar protest on the campus of Kent State. Somewhere between 61 and 67 shots were fired at the students in 13 seconds. Four students were killed and another nine were injured. (Chrissie Hynde, the future leader The Pretenders and Jerry Casale, soon to be part of Devo, were in the crowd but not injured.)
The shootings rocked America, revealing again the sharp divide between left and right and between the generations. And after Kent State, the Nixon administration began its downward spiral, first into the Watergate scandal and ultimately with the resignation of Richard Nixon. It also resulted in one of the great protest songs of all time.
While Kent State was all over the news that week, it wasn’t until Life magazine published an 11-page photo special later in the month that Neil Young really understood what had happened.
It was the morning of May 19, 1970. He and bandmate David Crosby were at the home of their road manager when Young saw the copy of Life. He grabbed a guitar and left the room.
The lyrics about “tin soldiers” came quickly, perhaps inspired by the use of the phrase in several earlier songs (Donavan’s The Little Tin Soldier from 1965, The Small Faces’ Tin Soldier from 1967, and 1968’s One Tin Soldier by The Original Caste). It took Young all of 15 minutes to come up with the words. Crosby started with the harmonies as Young was writing. (Another story has the two of them in northern California with Neil disappearing into the woods for about an hour to write the song.)
Fast-forward to today. First came the election of Donald Trump with his divisive America First policies, followed by Robert Mueller, impeachment by the House, fumbling of the COVID-19 crisis, an economic crash resulting in 42 million unemployed America, and widespread protests against racism and police brutality, along with violence, looting, tear-gassing of peaceful protestors in order to make way for an ill-advised photo op, and threats to use the U.S. military against American citizens.
Throw in Russian interference in elections and the aggressive ascendance of China (not to mention locusts in Africa and murder hornets in North America) and you have one a tense planet.