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6 Odes to Ohio


For six of the past seven summers, I’ve spent a long weekend visiting college friends in northern Ohio — a part of the country with which I was previously unfamiliar but has now come to feel like a home away from home. A highlight of these trips is always, weather permitting, when we get to tube lazily down the Cuyahoga River. We tend to start the drive with this excursion’s unofficial theme song: “Burn On,” Randy Newman’s wry but warmly sung ode to that time in 1969 that the infamously polluted Cuyahoga caught fire.

More than 50 years later, the fact that we can comfortably float in the Cuyahoga speaks to the success of the high-profile cleanup campaigns that have restored the river to its past glory — so much so that in 2019, the conservation association American Rivers named it “River of the Year.” I did not even know that was a thing. Congrats, Cuyahoga!

Newman isn’t the only musician to be fascinated by the plight of this particular river. A song called “Cuyahoga” appears on R.E.M.’s great fourth album, “Life’s Rich Pageant”; Michael Stipe uses the word as a metaphor not just for environmental degradation but for the seizing of land — and even language — originally belonging to native people. “This is where they walked, this is where they swam,” Stipe sings, then adds with bitter irony, “Take a picture here, take a souvenir.”

Perhaps because of the sing-songy, vowel-heavy composition of its name, the state of Ohio itself has inspired quite a few notable tunes. I collected a few for today’s playlist — from the likes of Harry Nilsson, King Princess and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young — to round out those musical odes to the 2019 River of the Year.

Will this be the first in a long series of 50 Amplifier installments, each devoted to songs about a specific state? Well, even Sufjan Stevens couldn’t finish his 50 States Project, so I’d say don’t hold your breath.

Listen along on Spotify as you read.

“There’s a red moon rising on the Cuyahoga River,” Newman begins in that inimitable voice, accompanied by his own plinking piano, “rolling into Cleveland from the lake.” Released on his 1972 album “Sail Away,” “Burn On” is featured in the opening montage of the classic 1989 baseball flick “Major League,” because — according to a Wikipedia statement without a citation that I will choose to believe anyway — the director David S. Ward said the song was “the only one he knew of that was about Cleveland, Ohio.” (Had he never heard “Cleveland Rocks”?) (Listen on YouTube)

Recorded just two weeks after the fatal 1970 incident at Kent State University, when the Ohio National Guard killed four students and wounded nine more, the searing “Ohio,” featuring lyrics by Neil Young, was rush-released the following month and effectively tapped into the countercultural consciousness. (Listen on YouTube, because this one isn’t on Spotify for presumably Young-related reasons)

On “Life’s Rich Pageant,” “Cuyahoga” is preceded by the jangling single “Fall on Me,” a song about the effects of acid rain. Taken together, these tracks indicate the band’s growing social conscience and its particular focus on environmentalism. (Listen on YouTube)

This rollicking live staple frequently closed out King Princess’s early shows. Some of her fans were so vocally upset that this song did not appear on her debut album that, in a 2019 Instagram story, the artist born Mikaela Straus cheekily wrote, “I recorded a version of Ohio that is almost done so everyone just calm down.” She kept her word: The sultry studio version of the song — addressed to a former flame who’s gone home to the Buckeye state — appeared on the deluxe edition of the album “Cheap Queen.” (Listen on YouTube)

Ohio is also depicted as a mythical elsewhere — a love interest’s faraway home — in this heart-wrenching acoustic ballad by the Seattle singer-songwriter Damien Jurado. It appears on his 1999 album “Rehearsals for Departure” and also on many, many mix CDs I burned in college. (Listen on YouTube)

What is it with Randy Newman and Ohio? He wrote this sweetly nostalgic ditty and recorded his own version for “Sail Away,” though in the spirit of mixing thing up, I chose Harry Nilsson’s version from the earlier, 1970 album “Nilsson Sings Newman.” The song recalls a simpler time, when people dropped by for tea and, perhaps, the Cuyahoga ran clear and blissfully inflammable. (Listen on YouTube)

Burn on, big river,


Listen on Spotify. We update this playlist with each new newsletter.

“Odes to Ohio” track list
Track 1: Randy Newman, “Burn On”
Track 2: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “Ohio”
Track 3: REM, “Cuyahoga”
Track 4: King Princess, “Ohio”
Track 5: Damien Jurado, “Ohio”
Track 6: Harry Nilsson, “Dayton Ohio 1903”

This 2009 New York Times report, pegged to the 40th anniversary of the Cuyahoga catching fire, has a lede so vivid it is worth quoting in full: “The first time Gene Roberts fell into the Cuyahoga River, he worried he might die. The year was 1963, and the river was still an open sewer for industrial waste. Walking home, Mr. Roberts smelled so bad that his friends ran to stay upwind of him.”

Also, it feels almost sacrilegious to talk about the music of Ohio and not mention Guided by Voices, so cue up “Glad Girls” — or another of the approximately 71 billion rippers the Dayton band has recorded over its career — and crank the volume up.


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