Songwriter Sufjan Stevens famously began and abandoned what he called “The 50 State Project”, in which he proposed an expansive series of concept albums to celebrate the states of our blessed union. Stevens started with his native Michigan in 2003 and followed it up shortly afterward with Illinois, his most well-received album to date. Since that success his project has been abandoned as “a publicity stunt” leaving most of us to lament the exclusion of our native homes – No more, says I. If Sufjan Stevens will not finish his stupid project we will!
Alas, in recent years my native state lends itself poorly to poetry and silly in song (There’s a big difference between Wadsworth’s epic Song of Hiawatha and “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” – I blame Prairie Home Companion). So here we are, unable to assemble a suitable tribute to our fine state, be it nonetheless the greatest of all. Minnesota is in the works and you can be sure I won’t leave out this track though I must say at this time its set to open with Skeleton Ed’s delightful rocker “Fridley Bound”.
I believe Michigan was Stevens’ choice not because it was his home state but because he was going to work concentrically outward, probably ending with Hawaii and Florida (Those are going to be fun states!). Out of respect for this brilliant vision, we at Hymie’s Records feel Ohio is the logical continuation.
Yes! Ohio! Our nation’s 17th state, home to 11 million proud Americans presumably including Doctor Johnny Fever, birthplace of seven presidents (Five of them awesome) and certainly the rockin’est state for hosting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Yet is Ohio a rockin’ land? A soulful land? We here in Minnesota tend to overlook over states because of our enormous contributions (Forget Dylan, we gave the world Scooby Don’t!) but truly Ohio must not be overlooked.
You already know the Ohio Players are from the Buckeye State, but also the O’Jays? Its true! And Tom Scholtz, the guy from Boston, was from … that’s right, Ohio! Sadly, Boz Scaggs is also a son of Ohio but they could ask Wikipedia to omit that fact. There’s also some guy from a band actually called Tool. Tool. Hee hee.
Lambchop’s OH (Ohio) may have been assumed by some to be a continuation of the Sufjan Stevens product but in reality the album has less to do with Ohio than their more well-received pseudo-concept album Nixon did with the 37th president. Irresistible nonetheless, below is the first track, titled “Ohio”.
The before/after paintings on Lambchop’s Ohio are by Michael Peed.
Ohio is a historically industrious land as a result of its geography. All through this country’s modern history production has been forced to go through Ohio. Bruce Springsteen’s “Youngstown” tells the history of one industrious city with characteristic gloom.
I had spent the night in Youngstown on September 11th, 2001 while on my way home after a while away. Already weary from my adventures through the east coast, all I really wanted to do was get back home. With no radio in the van I was sort of blacked out from all of the news making each rest stop all the more surreal. I will never forget returning to Minneapolis the next morning, or how happy I was to run into an old friend on Franklin Avenue upon arriving.
The tracks you heard above were Gillian Welch’s “Look at Miss Ohio” and John Denver’s “Saturday Night in Toledo Ohio” which has already been heard on this site. Each fails to capture the Ohio’s great size and variety, presenting a simplified fly-over country view of the state that is inevitably essential to every presidential campaign. John Denver’s song (Written by Randy Sparks, incidentally) is particularly snarky in its description of Ohio’s fifth largest city. “Toledo” from the Elvis Costello/Burt Bacharach collaboration Painted from Memory exemplifies this dismissive attitude:
The little people living in Toledo may not travel Europe like Elvis Costello, but they do have their own symphony orchestra and art museum (Home of Peter Paul Rueben’s The Crowning of St Catherine as well as works by Rembrandt and El Greco), one of baseball’s oldest teams (The Mud Hens) and an amazing 3,000 foot suspension bridge. Not so bad. This classic piece by Lenny Bruce is similar to the John Denver track although far more vicious. Here’s his account of spending a couple weeks in Lima, Ohio:
Not the most flattering takes on the Buckeye State. The Euclid Beach Band (Named for the amusement park outside of Cleveland) further lamented in their song, “No Surf in Cleveland”. Its hard to be a surf group from Ohio.
On May 4th 1970 the Ohio National Guard opened fire on student demonstrators at Kent State University, killing four students and wounding nine. John Filo’s photograph of a fourteen year old runaway kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller captured the nation’s shock and Neil Young’s protest song “Ohio” – Rushed to radio stations within weeks of the tragedy – captured its anger.
Simple and straightforward at only nine lines long, “Ohio” is fairly regarded as one of the most moving protest songs of the era – David Crosby’s wailing voice in the fadeout is particularly evocative.
Many other songs were written about the events, notable Steve Miller’s “Jackson-Kent Blues” which also references the similar shooting at Jackson State weeks later, and the heartbreaking Harvey Andrews song “Hey Sandy”.
Phil Ochs, known for his own protest anthem “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore”, never wrote a song about the Kent State Massacre himself. In fact, his 1970 album, sardonically titled Greatest Hits (“50 Phil Ochs fans can’t be wrong”), was his last and least political. It did contains the nostalgic “Boy in Ohio”:
Ochs did grow up in Columbus, but he was actually born in Texas!
This next track is probably about Ohio – Its alway hard to tell with REM. “Cuyahoga” seems to reference the multiple fires that overtook the polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland over the years. The 1969 river fire drew the nation’s attention towards industrial pollution and spurred the movement to create an Environmental Protection Agency.
Randy Newman wrote a song about the 1969 Cuyahoga fire shortly after it shocked the nation, and his album Sail Away is unique in that it has not one but two songs about Ohio. Heard next are Newman’s “Burn On” followed by the wistful “Dayton, Ohio – 1903”:
[Incidentally, “Look Out Cleveland” from the Band’s second album has not been included on this playlist because its a song about Ohio in name only, or SAOINO as the fanatics say.]
These next two selections are television themes. A lot of us will probably be watching this first show in a couple weeks. My own Thanksgiving tradition has always been to listen to Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Masacree”, but I can think of at least one person who watches WKRP in Cincinnati every year. On its Thanksgiving episode, the radio station dropped free live turkeys out of a helicopter as a promotion. The flightless birds plunge to their deaths while shoppers run for their lives, and Arthur Carlson later delivers the famous line, “God as my witness I thought turkeys could fly.” Here’s the program’s opening theme by Tom Wells:
And here is one of the funniest sitcom introductions I can think of, although the show itself seldom lived up the the excitement of the opening. The song is “Cleveland Rocks” by the Presidents of the United States of America:
Cincinnati vs Cleveland – It a conflict as old as the ages. Well, almost as old as the ages. The Cincinnati vs Cleveland conflicts began when French trappers from Cinci would ride into Cleveland shooting their muskets in the air and claiming they trapped the finest pelts in all the Ohio Territory. Residents of Cleveland would respond by giving them dysentery. In today’s dignified climate we allow the Bengals and the Browns to settle this dispute (The Browns won it last week). Where does Hymie’s Vintage Records stand on this issue, you ask? We were almost swayed by Frank Zappa’s “Let’s Move to Cleveland”, but then heard this Connie Smith record:
Can you believe that Cincinnati, Ohio has not adopted this as its official song? Its an outrage – What are these people doing with their time?! Join me in a campaign to demand Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory adopt Connie Smith’s 1967 country classic as the OFFICIAL SONG of his otherwise fair city. Write to Mayor Mallory at this address: firstname.lastname@example.org or call him direct at (513) 352-3250.
I was really excited to include Tom Waits’ “Clap Hands” in this playlist, but its passing mention of “a Cincinnati jacket” makes it no more a song about Ohio than it is one about Baltimore for the line “all the way to Baltimore”. The Townes Van Zandt classic “Poncho & Lefty” also makes passing reference to Cleveland, but its not Ohio enough for this collection. As for “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” we’re going to give that song to Michigan. Still, there were a variety of tracks I wanted to include but couldn’t find in the record shop, including any of several songs by Akron, Ohio native David Allen Coe and “Ohio is for Lovers” by Hawthorne Heights. Other Ohio natives we haven’t got in the shop right now include the Dead Boys (Because we sold Young Loud and Snotty the day before I thought of writing about states) and the Rubber City Rebels. Also, I wish they would press album by Canton, Ohio native Macy Gray on vinyl because I would buy a copy of On How Life Is.
Its going to be tough to end this post on a high note, because it seems most songs about Ohio were written by Ohio natives and paint a pretty gloomy picture. For example, here’s the Pretenders’ “My City Was Gone”:
Weeks have gone by and a simple, joyous celebration of the great state of Ohio just wouldn’t appear – Everything we found was so gloomy. “Carry Me Ohio” by Sun Kill Moon? Super gloomy. Modest Mouse’s “Ohio”? Same problem. Over the Rhine’s “Ohio”? Same problem. Soon the entire project was going to have to be scrapped. This is probably what happened to Sufjan Stevens. Just as I was about to click delete and put the entire affair sadly behind me, an angel appeared … Well, to be specific, Angel by the Ohio Player’s appeared. Here’s their 1977 hit “O-H-I-O”, which pretty much sums it all up:
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