Why are there so many songs about Ohio?

Why are there so many songs about Ohio?

The National
Photo: Graham MacIndoe
Words by Kate Streader

It holds a place in the hearts of so many bands.

Due to the nature of their work, musicians are often flung to far-reaching corners of the world, so it’s no surprise geography frequently serves as a muse.

From Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York’ to The Clash’s ‘London Calling’, cities far and wide have stood as creative points of reference throughout time. Even if we’ve never visited these places, we’re so attuned to the romance they’re consistently painted with through song that we feel a sense of familiarity and nostalgia at their mention.

According to a study of top-charting singles from the 1960s to now, New York is the most referred to place in popular music, appearing in 161 Top 40 singles alone. Following close behind are the usual suspects: London, Los Angeles, Paris and Miami. Though, what is unusual is how many mentions of Ohio appear in songs.

Image: Music Mapped, Celebrity Cruises

While it only clocks five Top 40 mentions across the last seven decades, barely making a dent in the data compiled as part of the interactive map, the Midwest state is constantly referred to throughout indie and alternative rock.

As home to America’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, it makes sense that Ohio holds some appeal to musicians within the genre and its sub-strains, though there’s definitely more to it than that.

“Tin soldiers and Nixon’s comin’/We’re finally on our own/This summer I hear the drummin’/Four dead in Ohio,” sang Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in 1970’s ‘Ohio’. It’s hardly an ode to its namesake – rather a protest song written in response to the Kent State shootings – and stands as part of a string of politically-fuelled tracks written about the Midwestern state.

In 1982, Ohio copped further flack with Pretenders’ ‘My City Was Gone’. The autobiographical track describes frontwoman Chrissie Hynde’s return to Ohio to find her once beautiful hometown has been ravaged by pollution and industrialisation. “My city had been pulled down/Reduced to parking spaces/A, o, way to go Ohio,” she sings.

Similarly, R.E.M.’s 1986 single ‘Cuyahoga’ is less a love song to the Great Lakes state and more a political statement, detailing the mistreatment of Native Americans and the pollution of the Cuyahoga River.

The Cuyahoga appears again three years later in Randy Newman’s ‘Burn On’, penned after the river caught fire as a result of heavy pollution. This wasn’t Newman’s first ode to Ohio, either. He’d referenced the state in 1972 with ‘Dayton, Ohio – 1903’, this time singing his praises for the region: “It’s a real nice way/To spend the day/In Dayton, Ohio/On a lazy Sunday afternoon in 1903.”

In 1995, Bruce Springsteen sang of Ohio with ‘Youngstown’, an intergenerational ballad depicting the rise and decline of the steel industry in the area, as well as brushes with war and unionisation. The following year, Ohio would serve as the backdrop for another bleak narrative, this time by Modest Mouse in ‘Ohio’: “Truly lonely/This place is flatter than it seems,” croons the band’s frontman Isaac Brock.

Ohio is a constant within contemporary rock and indie genres, too. From The National’s ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ and Bon Iver’s ‘Lisbon, OH’ to Kingswood and The Black Keys’ respective tracks, each titled ‘Ohio’, it seems many musicians have been inspired by the state in some shape or form.

Yet, no artist has displayed such a tangible connection to the state of Ohio as Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek. Given that Kozelek grew up in Ohio, it makes sense the region should appear in his work. Across his discography alone, the region is referenced in 21 songs and the namesake of two tracks.

In addition to ‘Carry Me, Ohio’ and ‘God Bless Ohio’, 2014’s Benji references Kozelek’s hometown frequently, with six of its 11 tracks mentioning the state. On 2015’s Universal Themes, the state pops up another five times, while it garners three mentions on this year’s I Also Want To Die In New Orleans, two on 2016’s Jesu/Sun Kil Moon and 2018’s This Is My Dinner, and one on 2017’s Common As Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood. 

Perhaps it’s just phonetics – Pretenders’ “A, o, way to go Ohioand Modest Mouse’s “Ohi-e-o/Ohi-hi-i-o-o” do make for catchy choruses – but there’s no denying there’s something special about Ohio.

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