Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
Odd Nosdam - No More Wig for Ohio
Neil Young - Ohio
Randy Newman - Dayton, Ohio - 1903
Bruce Springsteen - Youngstown
Randy Newman - Burn On
The Band - Look Out Cleveland
The Jayhawks - Somewhere in Ohio
[Daryl] - Ohio
Eddie from Ohio - The Candidate
The Ohio Players - O-H-I-O
Gillian Welch - Look Out Miss Ohio
To listen to the mix, hold shift and click here
When Ohio goes red, so goes the rest of the country. Or at least so goes the conventional wisdom. Ohio has gone to the winner of the Presidential election in every contest except two over the last hundred-odd years, but in the months since our most recent go-round, the Buckeye State has largely fallen from the headlines. This wild oscillation between national battleground and Middle American backwater has done little to make the place and its politics feel real and deep to the vast majority of American citizens. But Ohio holds an important place in the imaginations of many American musicians, and the diverse political interests that blend to form the state's electorate deeply mark their collective body of work.
'Swing State Blues or When Ohio Goes Red' is an attempt to juxtapose some of these elements. Glued together, these songs tell a story that goes beyond a simple blue/red delineation. They paint a picture in words and melodies of the swingingest of 2004's swing states.
Immediately following Odd Nosdam's rather rote critique of the state as a bastion for 1950s suburban comfort and unblinking conservative patriotism, Neil Young's haunting chorus of "four dead" recalls one of the most complex and dramatic events in this country's history. On May 4, 1970 a unit of the Ohio National Guard shot 13 students on the campus of Kent State University. Four of those students - Alison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder - were killed. Not one of the fatally wounded students was within 60 feet of the guard unit, and one was over four hundred feet away. In the days following the shootings, campuses across America erupted. According to Berkeley historian Todd Gitlin, "Strikes broke out at 30 percent of the nation's 2500 campuses.... Probably between 50 and 60 percent of the students in the United States took part." At the center of it all were the students of Kent State. Far from the liberal elite of Northeastern universities generally associated with the antiwar movement of the late 1960s, the kids of Kent were middle-income, heartland locals. As Gitlin puts it, the students who were killed, and just as importantly the ones so actively involved in direct protest, were the very individuals in line to make up the next generation of Nixon's "silent majority." This complex reality - and the government's deep misunderstanding (or intentional misrepresentation) of the demographics of political protest - has echoed clear through to the recent selling of the war in Iraq.
In the wake of Kent, however, I do believe that something of the nostalgic, neighborly spirit indicated by Nixon's vision of a silent but united majority rose to the surface. As the students of 1970s Kent State grew into the middle-aged electorate of 1980s Ohio and Ronald Reagan rose to national political prominence, a kind of cohesion does seem to have formed in the politics of the state. The massive overall popularity that President Reagan enjoyed in the 1980s, even in the face of widespread opposition to virtually every one of his programs on an individual basis, is indicative of a country and a state (nearly 59% of Ohioans voted for Reagan in 1984) in need of comfort as it attempted to recover from turbulent times in the late '60s and '70s. Randy Newman's song "Dayton, Ohio" presents this perspective, and whether or not you want to take anything that man ever says at face value, the small town friendliness at the core of Newman's Dayton is certainly a character in this discourse.
Yet contradiction abides. Springsteen's history of Northeast Ohio betrays none of the small town comfort so present in Newman's Dayton. Writing during the height of the economic downturn that decimated Ohio's heavy industry under Reagan and using that decimation as a platform to portray a country-wide ethos of blue collar depression, Springsteen discusses Ohio in the context of ongoing class struggle. The working-class Ohioans that Springsteen holds up as everyday heroes would never sit down for a cup of tea with Newman's dignified, vaguely aristocratic and Victorian Ohioans. But somehow both of these groups went to the polls to pull the Reagan lever in 1984 and the Bush lever in 2004.
Side one ends with another Randy Newman song, this one citing the environmental disaster area that Ohio's rust belt, including Youngstown, has become. The song, about the Cuyahoga River literally catching on fire for days at a time, casts two typically "blue" causes - labor and environment - in direct opposition, with labor interests clearly winning out.
The second side of "Swing State Blues" consists of vignettes and snapshots of Ohio life. I choose these songs for a single line or solitary image that has become poignant (most of the time through accident or coincidence) in the wake of our recent electoral season. From the tumultuous thunderstorms of The Band's "Look Out Cleveland" (evoking Election Day downpours and the nonstop, thunderous and generally un-listening media blitz that descended on the state) to Gillian Welch's indulgent heartland beauty queen and her willingness to postpone responsibility, the images of side two invoke the chaos of the democratic process and the capricious nature of today's electoral rallying points.
One of the most accidentally poignant lines on the album comes from Eddie from Ohio's "The Candidate:" "Could Jesus run for office and provide a perfect slate?" Originally intended as a comment on the media obsession with irrelevant minutia during the '92 and '96 Presidential elections, this line takes on a whole new meaning in the context of Karl Rove's 4 million previously reluctant evangelicals and the alleged values voters.
The Jayhawks' trio of lines ("Too bad; you were out ahead and you're slowin'" "Look out, the sky is falling" and "A bomb without a target") evoke the ups and downs of political "racing," the hugely overblown partisanship and self importance of the 2004 election, and the vagueness of the War on Terror, in that order.
The Ohio revealed by this hitmix is one of war protesters and workers, of Christians and gamblers, of environmentalists and industrialists. And it is the deeply confused nature of this narrative that makes the larger point. The essential feature of a democratic nation - the thing that should assure us that our democracy is intact - is not a once every four years test of might in which we see which political group can muster the greatest number of voters, but the constant reminder that we must learn to live together. The basis of law - the reason that rule of law works - is that those who agree to abide by it do so in the spirit of compromise. You win some, but you also lose some. The political tactic du jour, one which seeks to create an atmosphere of what Spiro Agnew once called "positive polarization," does nothing to further the cause of democracy. It is only through a deeper understanding of each other as individuals - through a national effort at political empathy - that we can right our ship.
Oh, and then there's that secret track at the end. Well, I guess it's not secret anymore, but it is at the end.