President Ronald Reagan speaking at the Reagan-Bush campaign rally in Hammonton, NJ, 19 September 1984.
It was mid-September 1984. U.S. President Ronald Reagan was on the campaign trail bidding for reelection in a race against Democrat and former vice president, Walter Mondale. Reagan was leading in the national polls at the time and had come to Hammonton, New Jersey for a Reagan-Bush campaign rally to give a campaign speech. Hammonton, known for its blueberry production, is located in southeastern New Jersey in Atlantic County, not far from Atlantic City.
The town had gone all out for Reagan’s visit, staged in an outdoor venue. Patriotic bunting decorated the buildings and a local band with cheerleaders was in place on the stage.
A giant American flag filled a large wall behind where Reagan would speak. And a large printed banner running along that wall offered a patriotic slogan that read: “America: Prouder, Stronger & Better.” A crowd of more than 30,000 had come out in Hammonton to hear Reagan, many of them waving hand-held American flags.
Ronald Reagan, barely visible in this photo, center left, approaching rostrum for 1984 speech at Hammonton, NJ, September 19th. Photo, PerOwer, flicker.com.
Ronald Reagan typically had optimistic and upbeat things to say in his speeches, and his remarks in Hammonton that day were no exception. This time, however, in part of his speech, he made reference to a popular rock and roll singer known to many in New Jersey and elsewhere.
“America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts,” President Reagan said in his speech. “It rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”
Bruce Springsteen at the time was about as popular as a rock ‘n roll singer could be, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt a politician – even an incumbent president – to be identified with that popularity. Springsteen then had a very successful album, Born in the U.S.A., with a popular song of the same name. The album had been released in June 1984 and was No.1 on the Billboard album chart by July 1984, remaining on the chart for 139 weeks. It would also spawn seven Top-10 hit singles and become one of the best-selling albums of Springsteen’s career with over 15 million copies sold in the U.S. alone. It was a monster hit, as was its title song, “Born in the U.S.A.” The release of the song as a single had followed the album. It was the third single from thealbum, and peaked at No.9 later that year on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.
Cover of Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 single, “Born in The U.S.A.,” which rose into Billboard’s Top Ten.
By late August 1984, the Born in the U.S.A. album was selling quite well. Songs from the album, including the title track, were receiving frequent radio play. And on top of that, Springsteen was on a live concert tour promoting the album and getting lots of national press. One stop on the tour was the concert at the Capital Center outside of Washington, D.C., which received some prominent media coverage. CBS Evening News correspondent, Bernard Goldberg, reporting on September 12, 1984, cast Springsteen as a modern-day Horatio Alger: “His shows are like old-time revivals with the same old-time message: If they work long enough and hard enough, like Springsteen himself, they can also make it to the promised land.” The next day, on September 13, 1984, nationally-syndicated Washington Post columnist, George Will, wrote a column entitled “Bruce Springsteen U.S.A.” (also titled, “Yankee Doodle Springsteen” in some editions; see Will’s full column as it appeared, posted here, beneath “Sources” at end of article). Will had attended one of Springsteen’s Washington performances at the invitation of Springsteen’s drummer, Max Weinberg and his wife Rebecca. In Will’s newspaper column, which ran in numerous papers all across the country, he praised Springsteen as an exemplar of classic American values. Wrote Will, in part:
“I have not got a clue about Springsteen’s politics, if any, but flags get waved at his concerts while he sings songs about hard times. He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: ‘Born in the U.S.A.!'”
Washington Post columnist, George Will, took Bruce Springsteen’s rock music the wrong way.
President Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign, then a few months before the national elections, was in full stride. George Will, a conservative Republican, had some friends and connections in the Reagan White House. Will got the idea that bringing Springsteen, or his songs, and the Reagan-Bush campaign into closer alignment might not be bad idea, and he suggested this to some of his White House friends, including Michael Deaver, Reagan’s long-time advisor. Deaver staffers then made inquiries to Springsteen’s people, asked if the song could be used for the campaign. They were politely rebuffed. Still, the idea that Reagan should somehow try to associate with the popular Springsteen did not die, and seems to have reached Reagan’s speechwriters, which accounted for Reagan’s remarks about Springsteen in his September 1984 speech at Hammonton.
The national campaign press, meanwhile, after hearing Reagan’s mention of Springsteen at Hammonton, were skeptical that Reagan knew anything at all about Springsteen or his music. Some asked what Reagan’s favorite Springsteen song was, for example. After a time, came the answer: “Born to Run.” Late night talk show host Johnny Carson began making jokes about Reagan’s new favorite music.
Bruce Springsteen performing in 1985.
Springsteen himself was on tour as the George Will piece ran in the papers, and also when Reagan gave his speech in Hammonton. But a few days after Reagan’s speech, during a September 22, 1984 concert in Pittsburgh, Springsteen responded. He was on stage introducing his song, “Johnny 99,” a song about an unemployed auto worker who turns to murder. “The President was mentioning my name the other day,” said Springsteen, as he moved into his song, “and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album [about hard times in America]. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one” [“Johnny 99″].
Meanwhile, Democratic presidential challenger Walter Mondale would say sometime later while campaigning, “Bruce Springsteen may have been born to run but he wasn’t born yesterday,” referring to Reagan’s use of the Springsteen association. Mondale later claimed to have been endorsed by Springsteen. But Mondale, too, was off the mark. Springsteen manager, Jon Landau, denied any such endorsement, and the Mondale campaign issued a retraction.
Springsteen, in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, had a bit more to say about Reagan:
“I think people have a need to feel good about the country they live in. But what’s happening, I think, is that that need — which is a good thing — is getting manipulated and exploited. You see it in the Reagan election ads on TV, you know, ‘It’s morning in America,’ and you say, ‘Well, it’s not morning in Pittsburgh.'”
Cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” album – No.1 on the Billboard chart in July 1984.
George Will and Reagan’s speechwriters had misinterpreted Springsteen’s music. True, they may have mistook the energy of the song and its rousing chorus for a kind of pro-America flag-waving, when actually the message was about how the system beat people down, and in the case of “Born in the U.S.A,” a local guy who goes off to fight in Vietnam, and returns to find no job, no hope, no respect. It’s the working class disconnected from government and certainly from foreign policy. Springsteen would later explain that the song is about a working-class man in the midst of a spiritual crisis, trying to find his way: “…It’s like he has nothing left to tie him into society anymore. He’s isolated from the government. Isolated from his family…to the point where nothing makes sense.” At the time of George Will’s column, some who had read his thoughts on Springsteen’s music took exception to his interpretation charging that he was trying to refashion Springsteen as a “hero of the right.” Yet there are strains of patriotic craving in the song. Some social scientists have scored “Born in the U.S.A.” as a lamentation on the loss of true national pride and a critique of a hollow patriotism– a cry for a patriotism that was once there but no longer exists.
Sept 1984: President Ronald Reagan acknowledging the crowd at Hammonton, New Jersey. AP photo.
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “Reagan & Springsteen, 1984,” PopHistoryDig.com, April 14, 2012.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
“Born in The U.S.A.”
Bruce Springsteen – 1984
Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up
Born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man
Born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
Iwas born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says “Son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “Son, don’t you understand”
I had a brother at Khe Sahn
fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone
He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms now
Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I’m ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go
Born in the U.S.A. I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
I’m a long gone Daddy in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
I’m a cool rocking Daddy in the U.S.A.
“Bruce Springsteen, U.S.A”
By George Will, Washington Post September 13, 1984
What I did on my summer vacation: My friend Bruce Springsteen…Okay, he’s only my acquaintance, but my children now think I am a serious person. I met him because his colleague Max Weinberg and Max’s wife Rebecca invited me to enjoy Max’s work, which I did. He plays drums for Springsteen, who plays rock and roll for purists, of whom there are lots. For 10 shows in New Jersey, he recently sold 16,000 $16 tickets in the first hour, all 202,000 in a day. His albums can sell 1 million copies on the first day of release.
There is not a smidgen of androgyny in Springsteen, who, rocketing around the stage in a T-shirt and headband, resembles Robert DeNiro in the combat scenes of “The Deerhunter.” This is rock for the United Steelworkers, accompanied by the opening barrage the battle of the Somme. The saintly Rebecca met me with a small pouch of cotton — for my ears, she explained. She thinks I am a poor specimen, I thought. I made it three beats into the first number before packing my ears. I may be the only 43-year-old American so out of the swim that I do not even know what marijuana smoke smells like. Perhaps at the concert I was surrounded by controlled substances. Certainly I was surrounded by orderly young adults earnestly — and correctly — insisting that Springsteen is a wholesome cultural portent.
For the uninitiated, the sensory blitzkrieg of a Springsteen concert is stunning. For the initiated, which included most of the 20,000 the night I experienced him, the lyrics, believe it or not, are most important.
Today, “values” are all the rage, with political candidates claiming to have backpacks stuffed full of them. Springsteen’s fans say his message affirms the right values. Certainly his manner does. Many of his fans regarded me as exotic fauna at the concert (a bow tie and double-breasted blazer is not the dress code) and undertook to instruct me. A typical tutorial went like this:
Me: “What do you like about him?”
Male fan: “He sings about faith and traditional values.”
Male fan’s female friend, dryly: “And cars and girls.”
Male fan: “No, no, it’s about community and roots and perseverance and family.”
She: “And cars and girls.”
Let’s not quibble. Cars and girls are American values, and this lyric surely expresses some elemental American sentiment: “Now mister the day my number comes in I ain’t never gonna ride in no used car again.”
Springsteen, a product of industrial New Jersey, is called the “blue-collar troubadour.” But if this is the class struggle, its anthem — its “Internationale” — is the song that provides the title for his 18-month, worldwide tour: “Born in the U.S.A.”
I have not got a clue about Springsteen’s politics, if any, but flags get waved at his concerts while he sings songs about hard times. He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: “Born in the U.S.A.!”
His songs, and the engaging homilies with which he introduces them, tell listeners to “downsize” their expectations — his phrase, borrowed from the auto industry, naturally. It is music for saying good-bye to Peter Pan: Life is real, life is earnest, life is a lot of work, but . . .
“Friday night’s pay night, guys fresh out of work/Talking about the weekend, scrubbing off the dirt. . ./In my head I keep a picture of a pretty little miss/Someday mister I’m gonna lead a better life than this.”
An evening with Springsteen — an evening tends to wash over into the a.m., the concerts lasting four hours — is vivid proof that the work ethic is alive and well. Backstage there hovers the odor of Ben-Gay: Springsteen is an athlete draining himself for every audience.
But, then, consider Max Weinberg’s bandaged fingers. The rigors of drumming have led to five tendinitis operations. He soaks his hands in hot water before a concert, in ice afterward, and sleeps with tight gloves on. Yes, of course, the whole E Street Band is making enough money to ease the pain. But they are not charging as much as they could, and the customers are happy. How many American businesses can say that?
If all Americans — in labor and management, who make steel or cars or shoes or textiles — made their products with as much energy and confidence as Springsteen and his merry band make music, there would be no need for Congress to be thinking about protectionism. No “domestic content” legislation is needed in the music industry. The British and other invasions have been met and matched.
In an age of lackadaisical effort and slipshod products, anyone who does anything — anything legal — conspicuously well and with zest is a national asset. Springsteen’s tour is hard, honest work and evidence of the astonishing vitality of America’s regions and generations. They produce distinctive tones of voice that other regions and generations embrace. There still is nothing quite like being born in the U.S.A.
______________ George F. Will, “Bruce Springsteen’s U.S.A,” Washington Post, Thursday, September 13, 1984, p. A-19.
Janis Joplin featured in a ‘Newsweek’ cover story, ‘Rebirth of the Blues,’ May 26, 1969.
In the rock ‘n roll firmament of the 1960s, Janis Joplin was a shooting star who burned white hot for five short years. She died of a heroin overdose at age 27. Joplin sang her own brand of the blues in an incendiary style. Yet in her short time — between 1966 and 1970 — she carved out a piece of music history that was distinctly her own. During these years, she traveled from the conservative community of Port Arthur, Texas to the expansive and unpredictable world that was the drug/hippie/music scene of 1960s San Francisco — and mostly in the glare of national stardom.
Joplin was born in Port Arthur, an oil refinery town, in 1943. As a teenager in the late 1950s, she had read about Jack Kerouac and the Beatniks, began to dress in her own style, and started listening to blues music with a few high school friends. Black blues singers Bessie Smith and Leadbelly were among her heroes.
An outcast in Port Arthur by the early 1960s, Joplin had made her way to California a time or two, and eventually came to San Francisco’s music and hippie scene. At the June 1967 Monterey Pop Festival she captured national attention with a stunning blues performance of “Ball and Chain.” From that point on, she became something of national phenomenon.
“Piece of My Heart”
But not everyone loved Janis Joplin. Her stage antics and whiskey-swilling, devil-may- care style put many people off. Some were convinced she had a death wish and was killing herself slowly with each performance and each day’s excesses, so that when she sang “Piece of My Heart,” the meaning was for real. The article that follows here covers some of the main events in the last four years of her life, from her rapid rise to stardom to her untimely death.
Janis Joplin performing at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 where she would do a stunning version of ‘Ball and Chain’ that would mark her as an overnight blues sensation. Photo, Ted Streshinsky.
Janis Joplin did not initially see herself as a big-time performer or a major talent. But in 1966, when she first teamed up with a real rock band she had met through friends, Joplin had a kind of epiphany. Chet Helms, a fellow Texan and one of San Francisco’s music promoters, introduced her to a then little-known band called Big Brother and the Holding Company. Up to that point, Joplin was thinking she had a good enough voice for local gigs, but that was about it. “… All of a sudden someone threw me into this rock band,” she would later explain, recalling her Big Brother session. “They threw these musicians at me, man, and the sound was coming from behind, the bass was charging me, and I decided then and there that was it, I never wanted to do anything else. It was better than it had been with any man, you know… Maybe that’s the trouble…”
Joplin joined Big Brother in June 1966. Her first public performance with them was at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco where they became the house band. In the following year, they cut their first album, Big Brother and The Holding Company, and gained a following with songs from that album, including, “Bye Bye Baby,” “Blind Man” and “Down On Me.” Then on June 17, 1967 she an Big Brother performed their show-stopping set on the second day of the Monterey International Pop Festival, sending them on a more national course.
Janis Joplin shown with members of the band, Big Brother and the Holding Co., in a 1968 poster for a performance at Winterland in San Francisco.
After Monterey, and after signing with Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman in November 1967, she and Big Brother were playing all over the country. Grossman got them a whopping recording contract with CBS/Columbia Records. They were soon making about $10,000 a performance, with Joplin’s annual income rising to about $150,000 — then very big money. In February 1968, they began an East Coast tour in Philadelphia, and also played Anderson Hall in in New York where Joplin revealed her raw power over an audience. On the last day of their East Coast swing, April 7, 1968, Joplin and Big Brother performed at the “Wake For Martin Luther King Jr.” concert in New York along with Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, Joni Mitchell, Richie Havens, Paul Butterfield and Elvin Bishop. The next month or so was spent recording the album Cheap Thrills, which would be released later that summer. In July 1968 she hit the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. In August, Cheap Thirlls was released and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts. It sold one million copies in the first month featuring songs such as “Piece Of My Heart,” among others. Joplin and Big Brother appeared on the West coast TV show, Hollywood Palace on October 26, 1968, performing two songs: “Summertime” and “I Need a Man to Love.”
Janis Joplin on the cover of the March 15th, 1969 edition of Rolling Stone, featuring a story that asks if she is “the Judy Garland of Rock?”
By early December 1968 Joplin decided to leave Big Brother, and by the end of the year she had formed a new band called the Kozmic Blues Band, a soul revue band with a complete horn section. Their first performance playing soul music was in late December in Memphis, TN. However, perfor- mances at the Fillmore East in February 1969 received mixed reviews. Elsewhere though, Janis and her band were getting more notice. In March there was a TV appearance on CBS’s 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace and a Rolling Stone cover story that month posing the question: “Janis: The Judy Garland of Rock?” Also in March, Joplin and her band appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Then it was back to San Francisco to Winterland and The Fillmore West. A European tour came in April-May 1969 — Frankfurt, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Copen- hagen, and Paris. Her debut in London at Albert Hall that April produced rave reviews in the papers and trade press — Disc, Melody Maker, and The Telegraph. Back in the States, studio work for another album, Kozmic Blues, began in Hollywood in June. Joplin also appeared on The Dick Cavett Show for the first time July 18,1969. She would appear on Cavett’s show two more times in 1970. She and her band also played various music festivals that summer–Devonshire Downs in Northridge, CA, and the Atlanta Pop Festival in Georgia in July. At the Atlantic City, New Jersey Pop Festival in early August, she sang with Little Richard.
Janis Joplin performing at Woodstock, 1969.
Then in mid-August came Woodstock where she performed on the second day of the festival, singing a ten-song set that included such tunes as: “To Love Somebody,” “Summertime,” “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” Piece of My Heart,” and “Ball & Chain.” Joplin by then had parted ways with Big Brother & the Holding Company. Still, she had a full compliment of musicians backing her at Woodstock. She played in the wee hours, Saturday-to- Sunday, at about 2:00 a.m. Some reported that without her normal band, Joplin’s performance lacked its usual punch, but others found it a solid performance. Henry Diltz was an official photographer at Woodstock and had an “all-access pass” that got him to the stage, and more importantly, “a little catwalk built just under the lip of the stage” where he took photographs of Joplin performing. “I was literally feet in front of her while she was singing — the absolutely best seat in the entire house of 400,000 people.” Diltz said of Joplin’s performance: “Everything I saw her sing, it was nothing held back.”
A younger Janis Joplin performing at an unidentified rock-festival venue sometime in the 1960s.
Following Woodstock, and through the remainder of 1969, there were other outings for Joplin and her band. In September they played the New Orleans Pop Festival at Baton Rouge International Speedway in Louisiana and the Hollywood Bowl in L.A. In October there were gigs in Austin and Houston, Texas. In November she appeared at Curtis Hall concert in Tampa, Florida where she was charged with two counts of using vulgar and obscene language on stage. Later that month she appeared at Auditorium Hall in Chicago, and also Madison Square Garden in New York where she sang with Tina Turner at a Rolling Stones concert. Her first solo effort, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, with the Kozmic Blues Band, was released about that time, and received mixed reviews. It included songs such as “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” and “To Love Somebody,” a cover of a Bee Gees’ tune.
Music Player “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)”
At the end of November 1969 Joplin played the West Palm Beach Rock Festival. In December there was an appearance in Nashville and another at Madison Square Garden — called a “rousing display of blues and rock” by the New York Times — where she was joined on stage by Johnny Winter and Paul Butterfield. It was about this time that she was “romantically linked” with Joe Namath in the New York papers, which appears to have been exaggerated beyond a meeting and a date or two. Other appearances in 1969 included ABC-TV’s Tom Jones Show, the Quaker City Rock Festival/Philadelphia, the Civic Center/Baltimore, ABC-TV’s show Music Scene, and the Toronto Pop Festival. Back home in California, meanwhile, Joplin moved into to a secluded home in a Redwood forest in the Larkspur are of Marin County, California, north of San Francisco, a beautiful spot between Mount Tamalpais and the San Francisco Bay. But toward the end of 1969, Joplin decided to take some time off.
R&R in Brazil
In January of 1970, Janis and her Kozmic Blues band parted ways, and in February, Joplin traveled to Brazil with her friend and costume designer Linda Gravenites. Gravenites had been with Joplin since 1966 and had lived a clean and sober life and was traveling with Joplin in part to help Joplin kick her drug and alchohol habits. In Brazil, Joplin met and became involved with David Niehaus, a clean and sober American schoolteacher who was traveling around the world at the time. The two were later photographed as happy revelers at Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, described as a “carefree” couple having a great time. By April she reported from Rio that she was “going off into the jungle with a big bear of a man.” But when Joplin returned to the U.S. she began using heroin again and her relationship with the schoolteacher ended as a result.
Poster for a Janis Joplin concert on June 12, 1970 in Louisville, KY with her new Full-Tilt Boogie Band.
Around this time, Joplin had formed her new band, the Full Tilt Boogie Band — a band composed mostly of young Canadian musicians; a band that Joplin had taken a more active role in forming than she did with her prior group. She would later describe this band as more fully her own. Joplin began touring with the Full Tilt Boogie Band in May 1970 and was quite happy with their performances and the feedback from fans and critics. Still, earlier that year, she had done a few performances with her former bandmates. On April 4th in San Francisco, she performed a reunion gig with Big Brother & The Holding Co. at the Fillmore West. Again, on April 12th, she appeared with Big Brother at Winterland where she and group were found in excellent form. By the time she began touring with Full Tilt Boogie in May 1970, Joplin had told friends she was drug-free. In fact, the young Canadians in her new band were also drug free and had no association with her old San Francisco crowd. Still, some noticed that her drinking had increased. In late June 1970, she appeared on TV’s The Dick Cavett Show, where she announced she would attend her ten-year high school class reunion later that summer in Port Arthur, Texas. High school had not been a happy time for Joplin, noting at one point that her classmates, “laughed me out of class, out of town and out of the state.” More on the high school visit later.
The Festival Express
In late June and early July 1970, Joplin and her new band joined the all-star Festival Express tour through Canada. On this tour, Joplin and her band performed on the same bill with other acts including: the Grateful Dead, Delaney and Bonnie, Rick Danko and The Band, Eric Andersen, Ian and Sylvia, and others.
Top portion of poster advertising the 1970 ‘Trans Continental Pop Festival,’ later renamed the Festival Express.
The Festival Express was unique among rock festivals. Rather than flying to each city — Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver were each scheduled — the musicians would travel by chartered Canadian National Railways train. The idea was to foster an atmosphere of musical creativity and closeness between the performers. The trips between cities were a mix of jam sessions and partying, with no shortage of drugs and alcohol. One of these sessions became quite notable — with Rick Danko of The Band, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin all having a rollicking good time. During the actual Festival Express series of concerts — which saw the Vancouver concert cancelled due to the mayor’s “anti-hippie” edicts — Janis Joplin gave some memorable performances. Footage of Joplin singing “Tell Mama” in Calgary would later become an MTV video in the 1980s. This performance would also be included on later Joplin albums and DVDs. The Festival Express Tour ended in early July 1970, but some 30 years later, in 2003, a “rockumentary” was produced featuring the original Festival Express tour, its music, and travels. That film would reap more than $1.2 million at the U.S. box office, and the DVD would become a hot seller as well. Shortly after the Festival Express, Joplin and the Full Tilt Boogie Band traveled to Honolulu, Hawaii where they performed in early July 1970 at the International Center Arena. But then it was back to California.
Poster for July 1970 Janis Joplin concert.
On July 11th, Joplin and the Full Tilt Boogie Band arrived in San Diego for a concert there at the Sports Arena. They were joined in San Diego by longtime Doors producer Paul Rothchild, who was being considered to work with Joplin on her next album. Janis’s sister, Laura, would later write of Rothchild in her book, Love, Janis, ” In San Diego, Janis gave him a stopwatch, saying ‘Look, I’ve got thirty-five good minutes in me. You stand behind the amps and I’ll look you over, you flash me how much time I have left.’ Paul thought it was a good sign that she was pacing herself like a runner.” Joplin was fighting her alcohol and drug demons at the time.
Psychedelic-style poster for the July 11, 1970 concert in San Diego with Janis Joplin photo.
Rothchild later said of watching Joplin’s performance as she was singing: “. . . I was enraptured because I was listening to one of the most brilliant vocalists I ever heard, in classical, pop, or jazz music. What a voice. . . all of the woman was revealed. The vessel of Janis vanished. For somebody like me, who was always talking about the inner beauty and all that stuff, it got me big. So I was totally hooked from that moment on, on every single possible level.” Several weeks later, Rothchild would help Janis work on her final album, Pearl.
On the plane ride back to San Francisco after the San Diego concert, Janis was upbeat, as the presence of old friends at the concert had energized her. She bought drinks for everyone on the plane. But some of those with her, like Big Brother guitarist James Gurley, thought she was a bit “too exuberant, trying to be the life of the party.” Joplin was still on an emotional roller coaster; high and then low. She was struggling to maintain her equilibrium.
In early August, Joplin again appeared on The Dick Cavett Show, and a few days later, on August 6, 1970, performed as a surprise guest at the Festival for Peace at Shea Stadium in Queens. Joplin was not on the original roster of performers for the concert, but since she was in New York and her former band, Big Brother, was on the bill, she agreed to do the concert. By some accounts, at least 50,000 fans attended Joplin’s performance, re- portedly aided by a bottle of Southern Comfort whiskey. This concert — also called the Summer Festival for Peace — followed a Winter Festival for Peace that had been staged earlier that year at Madison Square Garden. These concerts were among the first ever in the U.S. to be used for political fund raising and anti-war purposes. Such concerts were not generally seen prior to 1970, but became more common thereafter. The acts at the Peace Festivals generally donated their time and performances. Among the performers at Shea Stadium that August were Peter Yarrow, Pacific Gas & Electric, Tom Paxton, Dionne Warwick, Poco, Ten Wheel Drive, Al Kooper, Richie Havens, Sha-Na-Na, The Young Rascals, Paul Simon, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Steppenwolf, The James Gang, Miles Davis, Johnny Winter, Herbie Hancock and others. The show ran from 10:00 a.m. to midnight. And by some accounts, at least 50,000 fans attended. Joplin’s performance — reportedly aided by a bottle of Southern Comfort whiskey — included at least four of her songs: “Ball& Chain,” “Summertime,” “Turtle Blues” and “Piece of My Heart.”
Headstone for Bessie Smith’s grave site that Janis Joplin helped pay for. Inscription:‘The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing.’
One of Joplin’s idols growing up had been Bessie Smith, the famous blues and jazz singer of the 1920 and 1930s. Smith’s music had been an early influence on Joplin. But when Joplin learned that Smith’s grave site had no marker, she moved to help provide a major portion of the funds to obtain one. A few days following her concert at Shea Stadium, on August 8, 1970, Joplin provided at least part of the financing to provide a headstone for Smith’s unmarked grave at Philadelphia’s Mount Lawn Cemetery. An inscription on the installed headstone reads: ‘The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing.’
Joplin’s next scheduled appearance in 1970 was in Boston, at Harvard College, but her band’s equipment was stolen. The group managed to make their performance at Harvard Stadium on August 12 th before 40,000 fans using borrowed equipment. Still, they seemed to have delivered a decent concert, as a front-page story in Harvard Crimson newspaper gave the concert a positive review. It would be Joplin’s last public appearance with the Full Tilt Boogie Band and her last public performance. Her next stop was her former home town, Port Arthur, Texas for the tenth year reunion of her high school class.
Janis’ Texas Hurt 1956-1964
Joplin as she appeared in her 1960 high school photo.
Growing up in the conservative oil refining town of Port Arthur, Texas in the 1950s was not easy for young Janis Joplin. Although she was loved by her family while growing up there, her high school and local college experiences in Texas appeared to have scarred her deeply. As a teenager she had read the Beatniks, began to dress in her own style, and started singing folk and blues music locally. But in high school, she had gained weight and developed bad skin, and was called “pig” by some of the other kids. After graduating high school in 1960, she attended Lamar State College that summer, at nearby Beaumont Texas, and continued there in the fall. Ridiculed there as well, and not comfortable in class, she dropped out. In 1961, after passing a secretarial exam, Joplin’s parents sent her to Los Angeles to live with her aunts, but she soon found a place of her own in Venice Beach where drugs became part of her life. The visit home to Port Arthur for the reunion did not achieve what Joplin had hoped, and once again she left town feeling rejected and unloved. By the end of the year, she returned home to Port Arthur. In 1962, she enrolled in fine arts at the University of Texas in Austin and was also singing locally, blues mostly, but also with a blue grass band. Her experiences on the University of Texas campus, however, weren’t much better than in Port Arthur or Beaumont, as she was nominated for the “Ugliest Man on Campus” award at one point, a deep cut. After hearing about the post-Beat scene in San Francisco, Joplin made her way to North Beach in San Francisco and then Haight-Ashbury, then becoming more heavily involved with alcohol and drugs. After a near-death experience, and reportedly dropping to a weight of about 88 pounds at one point, she returned to Port Arthur in 1965. Back home, she tried college again at Lamar, this time enrolling as a sociology major. She kicked her drug habit, changed her look to a more conservative style, but still, her experiences at Lamar were no better. In Austin, meanwhile, she continued singing blues at a few clubs in late 1965 and early 1966. By mid-1966 she returned to California for good, pursuing her music career in San Francisco by joining Big Brother and the Holding Company. By late 1967, following her debut at the Monterey Festival, she was on her way to national stardom.
Janis Joplin on the cover of "Rolling Stone," August 6, 1970.
In mid-August 1970, when Joplin returned to Port Arthur for her 10th year high school reunion, she was coming back, in part, to make a statement about her success, and specifically for those who had treated her badly as a teenager. But during the visit, Joplin was drinking hard and she did not attempt to “tone down” her dress or her style. She had also previously made negative remarks about Port Arthur in the national press — or as one New York Times writer put it — “never missed a chance to dismiss her blue-collar hometown as a bastion of small-town intolerance.” On August 14th, Joplin attended her high school reunion at Thomas Jefferson High School. She was accompanied by fellow musician and friend Bob Neuwirth, road manager John Cooke, and her younger sister, Laura. Dressed in the popular San Francisco hippie fashion of the day with feathers and beads and her trademark purple-tinted glasses, Joplin answered questions at a press conference, during which some of her more painful high school days came up again. All in all, it wasn’t a pleasant visit for Joplin. Generally, this visit home to Port Arthur for the reunion did not achieve what she had hoped, and once again she left town feeling rejected and unloved. She soon returned to California to work on her music.
During late August, Joplin arrived in Los Angeles to begin work on a new album. Sessions were planned for the Sunset Sound Studio with producer Paul Rothchild. Joplin checked into the nearby Landmark Motel. She had been seeing a steady new boyfriend, a younger and wealthy easterner named Seth Morgan, and they were rumored to be engaged. But Joplin at the time threw herself into her recording sessions and the work on her new album.When he entered her motel room, Cooke found Joplin dead on the floor. She also had a bit of fun at the session, at one point recording a birthday greeting for John Lennon that would later be sent to him — “Happy Trails,” the Roy Rogers / Dale Evens tune.
On Saturday, October 3, 1970, Joplin visited the Sunset Studios to listen to the instrumental track for the song “Buried Alive in the Blues” prior to recording her vocal track with it, scheduled for the next day. But on Sunday afternoon, she failed to show up at the studio. Producer Rothchild and road manager John Cooke became concerned. Cooke drove to the Landmark Motel where he found Joplin’s psychedelically painted Porsche still in the parking lot. When he entered her motel room, Cooke found Joplin dead on the floor. The official cause of death was later determined as an overdose of heroin, possibly combined with the effects of alcohol. Janis Joplin was 27 years old. Her ashes were later scattered into the Pacific Ocean along Stinson Beach north of San Francisco.
Cover of Janis Joplin's "Me & Bobby McGee" single from her posthumous 'Pearl' album, 1971.
Joplin’s newly recorded material from her Los Angeles studio sessions, meanwhile, had not gone to market. Four months after her death, in February 1971, the new material was released under the album name, Pearl, a nickname sometimes used for Joplin. The album included the songs “Mercedes Benz,” “Get It While You Can,” and “Me and Bobby McGee.” Pearl topped the album charts for nine weeks, and “Me and Bobby McGee” became a No. 1 single in 1971 and one of her biggest hits. But the one song on that album without Joplin’s lyrics — the performance she never showed up for the weekend of her death — was left as an instrumental, “Buried Alive in The Blues.” Part of its verse would have gone: “All caught up in a landslide / Bad luck pressing in from all sides / Just got knocked off my easy ride / Buried alive in the blues.” And as Joplin herself once said: “People, whether they know it or not, like their blues singer’s miserable. They like their blues singers to die afterwards.”
Cover photo of a young Janis Joplin from boxed set of 3 CDs.
Joplin as Icon
Joplin’s death was a blow to her fans and the music world, especially since only weeks earlier, Jimi Hendrix had also died. Joplin was remembered as a musical force and an icon for her own times as well as the ages. Many thought Joplin was just hitting her stride with Pearl, and might have gone on to much greater things had she overcome her demons. Tom Moon, writing in his book, 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, calls Pearl, “the pre- cious last testament of a belter.” By her last year, Moon says, Joplin had grown into “a devastatingly original voice, the rare white interpreter of African American music who resisted the ready cliche. She treated old Delta songs and ’50s R&B ballads as theatrical platforms, ripe for large-scale rethinking. Her blues woe was never typical blues woe. …[S]he could turn out a plea that made listeners feel like they were part of a fateful make-or-break moment happening right then.”
Media Player “Me & Bobby McGee”
Jon Pareles of the New York Times wrote that Joplin was: “overpowering and deeply vulnerable, brassy and shy, stylized and direct, indomitable and masochistic. She took the tough rasp of old blues shouters and made it her own by bringing out pain and tension to match the bravado. With magnificent timing Joplin made it seem as if she was pouring out unvarnished emotion.” The Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, writing in her 1995 induction description, adds: “Janis Joplin has passed into the realm of legend: an outwardly brash yet inwardly vulnerable and troubled personality who possessed one of the most passionate voices in rock history.”
Janis Joplin, undated photo.
Megan Terry, writing among other authors in the book, Notable American Women, observes that “Joplin brought to her music a distinctive sound and look, passion and an honest interpretive ability. Her hold over an audience was as great as that of Elvis Presley and her success was an extraordinary and unprecedented feat in the male- dominated rock and music world.” In fact, along with Grace Slick of The Jefferson Airplane, Joplin is credited with opening doors for women who would follow her in the rock ‘n roll business. And finally, music journalist Ellen Wills noted that “Joplin belonged to that select group of pop figures who mattered as much for themselves as for their music. Among American rock performers, she was second only to Bob Dylan in importance as a creator-recorder-embodiment of her generation’s mythology.” Joplin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, and was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. Musicologists and historians continue to revisit her work. In November 2009, Case Western Reserve University and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum celebrated the music of Janis Joplin during the 14th annual American Music Masters series, calling her one of rock ‘n roll’s most passionate and influential artists.
Janis Joplin photograph, undated.
Back in Port Arthur, Texas, meanwhile, and nearly two decades after her death, some of the love and recognition Janis Joplin had sought from her hometown began coming her way in after-the-fact fashion. In 1988, Joplin’s life and achievements were showcased and recognized at a January Convention Center gathering — an event, wrote Peter Applebome of the New York Times, “that perhaps had as much to do with economics as with affection.” Some 5,000 people came out for the ceremony, a major turn out for Port Arthur. There was a dedication of a Janis Joplin Memorial, which included a multi-image bronze sculpture of Joplin. The sculpture, along with momentos of Joplin’s career, as well as that of other local musicians including the Big Bopper (Jiles Perry Richardson, Jr.) and Johnny Winter, would eventually become part of the Museum of the Gulf Coast, housing a permanent Joplin exhibit on the second floor. In January 2008, Port Arthur celebrated Joplin’s 65th birthday by putting a historical marker in front of her childhood home. The town now proclaims its link to Joplin with billboards, brochures, an annual concert, and local tours of various Joplin landmarks. “She was a very popular figure in the ’60s, and she had a lot to do with the style of music that evolved at that time,” said Yvonne Sutherlin of Jefferson County Historical Commission in January 2008. “We just want people to know that she’s from here.”
See also, at this website, “Selling Janis Joplin, 1995,” the story of how Mercedes-Benz used her song by that name in one of its TV ads. Additional stories at this website on notable women and their careers can be found at the topics page, “Noteworthy Ladies,” offering 36 story choices on women who have made their mark in various fields. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you see here, please make a donation to support this website. Thank you. — Jack Doyle
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “Joplin’s Shooting Star,” PopHistoryDig.com, December 7, 2009.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Cover photo of Janis Joplin on a 1972 album.
Janis Joplin, 1960s; Michael Ochs Archives.
KQED/PBS photo of Janis Joplin performing at the Monterey Folk Festival 1967 with Big Brother & the Holding Co.
Janis Joplin & ‘Southern Comfort’ photo by Jim Marshall, shot backstage at San Francisco’s Winterland in 1968. “Janis was a great subject to photograph,” observed Marshall, “ because she was not afraid of the camera and came alive on stage... She was very real and still a little girl when she died, a very famous little girl.”
Janis Joplin with Columbia Records president Clive Davis at a 1968 party celebrating Joplin's record deal. Davis had seen Joplin perform at the Monterey Pop Festival with Big Brother, later telling ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine that her performance was “mezmerizing...”
November 2009 poster from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Case Western Reserve University featuring the life and music of Janis Joplin in their American Music Masters series.
Janis Joplin shares cover of Time magazine’s January 1988 issue reviewing the key events of 1968 – ‘the year that shaped a generation.’
Robert Shelton, “Janis Joplin Is Climbing Fast In the Heady Rock Firmament; Singer Makes Her New York Debut With Big Brother and the Holding Company,” New York Times, Monday, February 19, 1968, p.51.
Paul Nelson,“A Report on Janis Joplin: The Judy Garland of Rock?,” Rolling Stone, March 15, 1969.
Peter Barnes, “Rebirth of the Blues,” Newsweek, May 26, 1969.
Mike Jahn, “Janis Joplin Gives A Rousing Display Of Blues and Rock,” New York Times, Saturday, December 20, 1969, p. 36.
Mike Jahn, “Janis Joplin and Her New Group Give Rousing Forest Hills Show,” New York Times, Tuesday, August 4, 1970, p. 22.
“Rock Singer Janis Joplin, 27, Found Dead in Hollywood Motel,” Los Angeles Times, October 5, 1970, p. 3.
Reuters, “Janis Joplin Dies; Rock Star Was 27,” New York Times, Monday, October 5, 1970, p. 1.
George Gent, “Death of Janis Joplin Attributed To Accidental Heroin Overdose,” New York Times, Tuesday, October 6, 1970, p. 50.
Robert Hilburn, “Janis Joplin’s Lifetime: ‘A Rush’,” Los Angeles Times, October 7, 1970, p. E-1.
Don Heckman, “Janis Joplin 1943-1970,” New York Times, Sunday, October 11, 1970, Arts & Leisure, p. 135.
“Music: Blues for Janis,” Time, Monday, October 19, 1970.
“Janis Joplin Estate Left to Parents,” Los Angeles Times, October 21, 1970, p. D-8.
“Janis Joplin: 1943-1970,” Rolling Stone, October 29, 1970.
“Janis Joplin Death Ruled Accidental,” Los Angeles Times, October 29, 1970, p. A-3.
“CBS Wins Ruling on Joplin Concert Disc,” Los Angeles Times, December 22, 1970, p. IV-14.
John Byrne Cooke (ed.), Janis Joplin: A Performance Diary 1966-1970,First Glance Books, 1997.
Mike Jahn, “Pearl, Last Album Janis Joplin Made, May Be Her Finest,” New York Times, Saturday, January 16, 1971, p. 19.
Robert Hilburn, “Janis Joplin’s ‘Pearl’ Album Released,” Los Angeles Times, January 19, 1971, p. H-8.
Don Heckman, “Janis: She Was Reaching for Musical Maturity,” New York Times, Sunday, May 21, 1972, Arts & Leisure, p. D-30.
“Janis: A Look at a Jet Age Red Hot Mama on the Second Anniversary of Her Death,” International Times, October 1, 1972.
Myra Friedman. Buried Alive: The Biography of Janis Joplin, New York: William Morrow, 1973.
Midge Decter, “The Earth Mother Was No More Than The Dearest Daughter Of The Angel of Death,” New York Times Book Review, August 12, 1973.
Megan Terry, “Janis Joplin,” in Barbara Sicherman & Carol Hurd Green (eds.), Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, Boston, Harvard University Press, 6th Edition, 1980, pp. 385-387.
Life magazine of May 15, 1970 showing one of the Kent State University students who was shot by National Guardsman during a time of unrest over the Vietnam War.
“Ohio” is the name of a song that marks one of America’s darkest moments on the home front during the Vietnam War. The song came in reaction to the May 1970 shooting deaths of four students at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio — students shot by National Guard troops sent there to quell student unrest over the Vietnam War. The song — by the rock group Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young — is both a commemorative tune and a protest song that became popular, rising on the music charts following the shootings. More on the song in a moment. First, the events leading up to the shootings.
On April 30th, 1970, U.S. President Richard Nixon addressed the nation in a televised broadcast in which he explained that American military troops, engaged in the Vietnam War, had been sent into neighboring Cambodia. This action — perceived by many as an expansion of the war and an invasion of another country — came in the midst of an already contentious national mood over the Vietnam War. Student protests over the war had already occurred on many college campuses. With the Cambodian invasion, more protesting ensued, including protests at Kent State University, located in the town of Kent in the northeastern Ohio, not far from the Pennsylvania border. In the town of Kent, on Friday evening, May 1st, following daytime demonstrations on campus, some store fronts were damaged, leading to a call to Ohio Governor James Rhodes and his activation of a National Guard unit.
National Guardsmen with bayonets fixed near Taylor Hall at Kent State University, prior to shootings.
On Saturday, May 2nd, some students helped clean up the damage that had occurred in town. However, later that evening, an Army Reserve Officer Training (ROTC) barracks on campus was surrounded by some 1,000 protesters, with a few setting it on fire. Tensions mounted on all sides along with misunderstandings. The National Guard, meanwhile, herded students into dormitories.
On Sunday morning, May 3rd, Ohio’s Republican Governor James Rhodes, in a press conference that was also broadcast to the troops on campus, vowed to “eradicate the problem” of protest at Kent State. Later that day, some impromptu demonstrations occurred in the streets with tear gas being fired by the Guard. As the planned campus demonstration for Monday, May 4th proceeded, about two thousand students gathered on a commons area. The National Guard assumed a position nearby with loaded weapons and fixed bayonets. The students were ordered to disband and things soon got out of control, resulting in the Guard firing on the students. It was later determined that the Guard fired between 61 and 67 rounds over a period of 13 seconds. Four students were killed — two men and two women; two of whom were 19 years old and two 20. Nine other male students were also wounded, one left with permanent paralysis. Most of the injured were also in their early 20s. Among those shot, not all were demonstrators; some were simply innocent bystanders. The incident sparked national outrage (see “Sources” below for links to more detailed accounts).
Mary Vecchio, screaming over the dead body of Jeffrey Miller, killed at Kent State on May 4, 1970. Photo was taken by undergraduate John Filo and appeared on newspaper front pages the next day. It has become the iconic image of that tragic day.
The press and national media covered the story in detail, with many front-page newspaper accounts using what would become the iconic photograph of the event — a young girl with arms outstretched screaming over the body of one of the slain students. In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, protests and a student strike ensued across the country.
Also fueling the outrage that followed was a remark President Nixon had made on a visit to the Pentagon on May 1, 1970. Talking informally with office workers gathered in a corridor to greet him, Nixon, when talking about youth in college generally, and then protesters in particular, said, “…You see these bums, you know, blowing up the campuses…” Some newspapers carried Nixon’s comments as a separate story on May 1st, the day the Cambodia story had made front-page headlines. In the Milwaukee Journal of May 1, 1970, for example, the Cambodia incursion was the dominant front-page headline, but also just below the fold was a second headline, “Nixon Rips ‘Campus Bums’.” Other papers and newscasts also covered the president’s comment and it reverberated across the nation. As one account would later put it, the comment was like pouring gasoline on a fire. On May 5th, outside the morgue where he had identified the corpse of his daughter, Allison Krause, one of those killed at Kent Sate, Arthur Krause, her distraught and angry father, told TV and print reporters: “My daughter was not a bum… She felt that our crossing into Cambodia was wrong. Is this dissent a crime? Is this a reason for killing her? Have we come to such a state in this country that a young girl has to be shot because she disagrees deeply with the actions of her government?”
May 18, 1970: Newsweek made the Kent State shootings its cover story.
Two days after the Kent State incident, police wounded four demonstrators at the University of Buffalo. On May 8th, some 100,000 protesters — angered over Kent State and the Cambodian invasion — gathered in Washington. Another 150,000 protested in San Francisco. Nationwide, four million students and 450 universities, colleges, and high schools would become involved in the student strike, which included mostly peaceful protests and walkouts. However, on some campuses, ROTC buildings were attacked or set on fire, and 26 schools witnessed clashes between students and police. National Guard units were mobilized on 21 campuses in 16 states. Public opinion polls, meanwhile, supported Nixon’s actions, with 50 percent of the American public backing him in polls taken during the second week of May. Fifty-eight percent blamed the students for what had occurred at Kent State. In one pro-Nixon demonstration in New York City on May 8th, some construction workers supporting the President’s actions rioted and attacked demonstrating students.
Following the Kent State tragedy there were extensive investigations that went on for years, with long-running legal proceedings and numerous books and articles written, some offering conspiracy theories. The event was dissected from beginning to end to determine who was responsible, but debate continues to this day regarding what some believe are still unanswered questions (see “Sources” below for more detail & links). But one notable reaction to the Kent State shootings came with the song “Ohio” by the rock group Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young — a song that reached the airwaves quite soon after the event.
Single sleeve for the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song , ‘Ohio’, with ‘Find the Cost of Freedom’ on B side.
David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash — each a singer, songwriter and guitarist — had formed their group, “Crosby, Stills & Nash” in 1968-69. Their debut album, Crosby, Stills & Nash, released in mid-1969, became quite popular among young listeners and especially on college campuses across the country. The group became known for both their lyrics and melodic harmonies, and particularly the songs of that first album, such as, “Marrakesh Express,” “Suite For Judy Blue Eyes,” “Guinnevere,” “Wooden Ships,” and “Helplessly Hoping.” Another song on that album, “Long Time Gone,” by David Crosby, was a response to the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. “Marrakesh” and “Judy Blue Eyes” also became successful Top 30 singles. By the summer of 1969, the group began touring and Neil Young, another singer-songwriter, had joined them. Young would later write the song “Ohio.”
“Ohio” Music Player
By March 1970, now a foursome, Crosby Stills, Nash & Young (CSN&Y) released a second album, Déjà Vu. In addition to having advance orders for more than 2 million copies (it eventually sold more than 7 million copies), this album included additional songs that marked the group as speaking for their generation and the unsettling times. Among these was “Woodstock,” a song commemorating the giant gathering at the August 1969 music festival in New York’s Hudson Valley north of New York city ( “Woodstock” was written by singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell who performed her own somewhat different version). “Teach Your Children,” was another “message” song from the Déjà Vu album. Both became top 20 hits as singles. Then came the Kent State shootings in early May 1970.
Two Famous Photos
In May 1970, Howard Ruffner was a second year student at Kent State University majoring in broadcast communications. Before attending Kent State, he had spent four years in the Air Force where he had learned photography. At the university, Ruffner was on the staff of the Daily Kent Stater newspaper and had captured some of the events that occurred during the shootings on May 4, 1970. One of his photographs ended up on the Life magazine cover above, with others used in the cover story that ran inside the magazine. Of the students who suffered that day, Ruffner stated, “I saw their faces and I could feel their pain, and I took their pictures so that no one would ever forget what happened at Kent State and the trauma that it caused for our nation.”
Another Kent Stater on May 4th, 1970 was John Filo, a young undergraduate working in the Kent State photo lab. As the protest ensued that day, he decided to grab his camera and see if he could get an interesting picture. He saw one student waving a black flag on the hillside, with the National Guard in the background. He took that photograph, believing he had recorded the moment. As he wandered through a parking lot where a lot of the students had gathered, the National Guard suddenly opened fire. Filo thought they were shooting blanks, and started taking pictures. A second later, he saw Mary Vecchio crying over the body of one of the students who had just been killed. He took the picture. A few hours later, he started to transmit the photos he had taken to the Associated Press from a small newspaper in nearby Pennsylvania. The photograph won him a Pulitzer Prize.
Neil Young by then had already demon- strated his singer-songwriter talents on previous work and he brought an important dimension to the group’s sound and message. His song “Ohio,” about the Kent State shootings, captured some of the anger and frustration felt by many young people at that time.
According to the story behind this song, Young was given an early copy of the Life magazine issue that had run the dramatic cover photo of a shot student being attended on its May 15th, 1970 issue (photo at top of page, above). David Crosby had given him the magazine copy, and after Young looked at the photos and read the story, he reportedly disappeared for several hours, returning later with his song.
The four musicians then rehearsed a version of the song which was then recorded on the evening of May 15th, 1970 at the Record Plant Studios in Los Angeles. The foursome, with other back-up musicians, recorded it live in just a few takes. During the same session they also recorded what would become the single’s B-side, Stephen Stills’ ode to the Vietnam war’s dead, “Find the Cost of Freedom.”
The record was then mastered and rush-released by the Atlantic record label soon after its recording. It was being sold on the market as a 45 rpm single in June and was being heard on the radio even before that, within weeks of the shootings. But the new song wasn’t welcomed everywhere. In some parts of the country it was banned from radio playlists — especially AM radio, the mainstream pop radio in those days. The song was held off the air at a number of those stations because of it’s “anti-war” and “anti-Nixon” sentiments.
Meanwhile, FM radio, then regarded as underground radio, played the song without hesitation. In any case, the song’s lyrics — especially the refrain, “four dead in O-hi-o” — became a ringing anthem for a generation angered by the war and what had happened at Kent State.
“Ohio” Lyrics by Neil Young
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.
Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?
Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.
Four dead in Ohio.
Four dead in Ohio…
…How many more…? Why?…
Bill Halverson, who was the engineer in the studio for the recording of “Ohio,”and had worked with the group on their other music, later explained of the AM/FM radio issue: “… I do recall that AM wouldn’t play it, and it was very controversial that AM wouldn’t play it. And FM, the underground — all the FM stations started playing it… And it got up in the 30s or so [on the music charts] just with FM play. …At that point, FM was pretty underground and AM was the deal. But they tried to ban it.”
In any event, “Ohio” entered the music charts on July 11th, 1970 and reached No. 14 at its peak, remaining in the Top 40 for about seven weeks that summer.
Following the tragedy at Kent State University — and also at Jackson State College in Jackson, Mississippi, where two students were killed and at least twelve wounded during May 14th demonstrations that followed the Kent State shootings — President Nixon established the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest on June 13, 1970. The Commission conducted a series of hearings and an investigation, issuing its findings in a formal report September 1970. That report concluded the Kent State shootings were “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.” The report also added: “Even if the guardsmen faced danger, it was not a danger that called for lethal force. The 61 shots by 28 guardsmen certainly cannot be justified…. The Kent State tragedy must mark the last time that, as a matter of course, loaded rifles are issued to guardsmen confronting student demonstrators.”
Meanwhile, years later, Crosby, Stills, and Nash visited the Kent State campus on May 4, 1997, attending the 27th annual commemoration of the shootings. When asked about the song “Ohio” on this occasion and why the group was attending the commemoration, Graham Nash responded: “Four young men and women had their lives taken from them while lawfully protesting this outrageous government action. We are going back [to Kent State] to keep awareness alive in the minds of all students, not only in America, but worldwide…to be vigilant and ready to stand and be counted… and to make sure that the powers of the politicians do not take precedent over the right of lawful protest.” Crosby, Stills, and Nash performed “Ohio” at the end of the commemoration ceremony.
The CSN&Y Sound
Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, and David Crosby, on the cover of their 1969 album that helped advance the singer-songwriter genre of music in the 1970s.
Even though they performed together as a group for only a few years, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had a significant impact on the music scene of the late 1960s and 1970s. In 1969, their first album in particular, Crosby, Stills & Nash, proved very influential in advancing the singer-songwriter movement of that era, and helped define a kind of “California” or “soft rock” sound subsequently heard throughout the 1970s in groups such as The Eagles, Jackson Browne, Fleetwood Mac, and others. The album has been rated among the top 300 all time by Rolling Stone, and it has been issued on compact disc three times: the mid-1980s, again in 1994, and most recently as an expanded edition in 2006. Their second album as well, Déjà Vu, which was a No. 1 album at its release in March 1970, has also been named as one of the top albums of all time by Rolling Stone, VH-1, and others.
CSN&Y’s “Ohio” is perhaps the most well-known song associated with the Kent State shootings. However, at least a dozen other artists have made lesser-known Kent State tribute songs, including Dave Brubeck, the Beach Boys, Steve Miller, Bruce Springsteen, and Joe Walsh (see “artist tributes.”).
See also at this website, “Kent State Reaction,” a short story on the protest and I-5 freeway occupation by students at the University of Washington in Seattle upon learning of the Kent State shootings. For an excellent historical perspective on the Kent State shootings and Cambodia, public reaction at the time, and the political aftermath, see the 2015 PBS documentary, Kent State: The Day the ’60s Died. For additional stories at this website on politics see the “Politics & Culture” page, and for music, the “Annals of Music” page. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you see here, please make a donation to support this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
I. F. Stone, The Killings at Kent State; How Murder Went Unpunished, New York: Vintage Books, 1970.
I. F. Stone, “Fabricated Evidence in the Kent State Killings”, The New York Review of Books, Vol. 15, No.10, December 3, 1970.
“At War with War” (cover story on student protest & Kent State shootings), Time, Monday, May 18, 1970.
Tear gas being fired on demonstrators at Kent State University, May 4, 1970.
“New Trial Called in Kent State Suit That Seeks Damages in ’70 Killings; Governor Told Not to Talk,” New York Times, Tuesday, September 13, 1977, p. 16.
“Ohio Approves $675,000 to Settle Suits in 1970 Kent State Shootings; Governor Rhodes and 27 National Guardsmen Offer Their Regrets for Deaths of 4 and Injuries to 9; Earlier Trial Finding Deep Emotions Over Years,” New York Times, Friday, January 5, 1979, p. A-12.
Pop culture and the history & businesses of pop culture, with emphasis on media & entertainment, including sports, politics, advertising & marketing as these relate to media, entertainment & popular culture.