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Abstract

In April of 1970, President Richard Nixon announced expanded military activity for US troops in Cambodia. On May 4, a protest at Kent State University against the perceived expansion of the Vietnam War ended in violence when National Guardsmen opened fire on the student gathering, killing four and wounding nine others. Despite heavy chronicling of the event by journalists and historians, nobody has delved with any real detail into the cultural outpouring that followed. Within weeks of the event, a number of musicians released songs inspired by the Kent State “massacre,” reframing the event from the youth standpoint and giving voice to the protesting minority. Some of these musicians were already famous prior to the shootings; Neil Young, who wrote “Ohio” in response to the deaths, and Steve Miller, of “Jackson-Kent Blues,” were already celebrated rock artists. Other artists, such as Halim El-Dabh–a professor at Kent State University in 1970 and later the composer of an opera about the event–were little known outside of their communities. Analysis of the music that arose from the Kent State shootings reveals new ways of looking at the event–a cultural memory of vastly greater importance to the 1970s youth than heretofore recognized. The tragedy at Kent State became defined by the art around it more than the event itself (similar to Bonnie and Clyde, the two bank robbers known more as folk heroes through film and song than written history). The music of Kent State encapsulated a nation at war with itself. The artists involved wove into the tale of the Kent State shootings the anger and betrayal that found little place in journalistic and historic accounts of the incident. This study is an analysis of the ways in which frameworks are created (specifically in relation to Kent State) and how they are malleable over time.

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