Songs about Ohio are songs about home.
It was the early 2000’s. Jam bands were a thing. I went to undergrad in Granville, Ohio about 40 minutes from Columbus. I heard the O.A.R. song “Road Outside Columbus” at a college party a time or two or a hundred. We were not exactly subtle. With lyrics like, “My friends are here./A couple years I’ve spent, I found I have a second home,” O.A.R. was pretty on the nose too.
Many years later, I tried to decipher the breathy lyricism of “Bloodbuzz, Ohio.” I’ve never been entirely clear what exactly this song is about, but I understand it as a look at how one navigates the place one is from and the person one is as an adult: “I was never married but Ohio don’t remember me.”
Then, it was the Avett Brothers’ “Salina.” While this song is named for Salina, Kansas, the only lyrics I get stuck in my head are “Ohio I’m leaving/Ohio I’m gone.”
Over the years, I have come to realize how many songs are about Ohio, or at least refer to a particular idea of Ohio. Ohio is home. Ohio could be used in as a stand in for home because of the shared vowel sounds alone, but I have a more grand theory about songs about Ohio.
Ohio is home, but it is often a home that has been left and can never be returned to. Many of these songs are about a nostalgic look back at a place that only exists in the imagination. The idea of home provides a sentimental connection to Ohio but also casts it as a space that cannot be returned to. The person in the song misses Ohio and bemoans that he or she can no longer go there—sometimes literally but always metaphorically. The narrator could return to Ohio but cannot recapture the lost youth, the lost sobriety, or the lost love. There is a sadness to these songs. They are a lament.
Several of these songs are descendants of “Ohio” from the musical My Sister Eileen, which contains the refrain, “Why Oh, Why Oh, did I ever leave Ohio,” The singer is upset about leaving Ohio and regrets the choices that have led to a life in New York. The lyrics, “Why Oh, Why Oh, did I ever leave Ohio?/Why did I wander to find what lies yonder?” and “Maybe I better go home” are a cry about the choice to leave the safe confines of Ohio and try to have a different life in New York City.
However, while the singer is longing for the simplicity of her previous life, she is also cementing her future of never returning to Ohio. Ohio becomes a site of nostalgia that is disconnected from the current time of the song. The narrator feels the pull of Ohio, but the gulf is too wide to bridge.
“Ohio” is a song about sadness and that legacy is carried through the songs that derive from it. Versions of the “why oh” line have been used in songs from the Black Keys (“Whoa, oo-Whoa/Oo-Whoa, oo-Whoa/Oo-whoa hi-oh/Hi-oh”) to Gillian Welch (“Oh me oh my oh, look at Miss Ohio”). This song cemented a perception of Ohio that sticks with us today. In all these songs, Ohio is a lost state.
Ohio is a place that the artists grapple with, but no one seems content with Ohio alone. Ohio is always vying for attention with places that are more enticing. Most of the songs suggest kinship with Ohio, but there is always a sense of Ohio as being a part of the past. Even the O.A.R. song, where the narrator is more serenely present in the space of Ohio, contains the finality of the past tense. The singer reflects, “There’s a road outside Columbus, Ohio/Feels like I drove along for years.” The narrator is not driving; he already “drove.” The performer might still be in his final years of college here—the members of O.A.R. went to Ohio State—but the tone is already nostalgic. For example, in the lines quoted above, “A couple years I’ve spent,/I found I have a second home” the singer is content in his relationship to “home,” but there is not the sense that Columbus will continue to be his home. It was his second home, but what will be his next one?
Or take Kid Cudi’s “Cleveland is the Reason.” While affirming Cudi’s relationship to Ohio, it’s not exactly exuberant. The assonance of “Cleveland” and “reason” works well with the declarative nature of the song, but the underlying message is that while Cleveland is responsible for shaping Kid Cudi, it shaped him just enough to allow him to move on. Cudi raps, “I’m from a place where old school’s are common/Gotta explain every time I’m rhymin’.” Cleveland is foundational, but it is also old school. It shapes you, but it doesn’t understand you. And then you leave.
The gulf between what was happening in Ohio and what you discover about yourself when you leave is illustrated in Tracy Chapman’s “Going Back.” This is one of the darkest and least nostalgic songs about Ohio, but it still grapples with the potential or lack of potential for reconciliation between the present and the past. The singer can imagine all of the past—“A yard for parked cars left to rot and forget/For chained-up mad dogs for garbage to sit”—but has no desire to revisit the place. However, even if Chapman is not “going back,” Ohio reverberates through her current world. Ohio is “with me with me always.”
For some, the look back at Ohio is enjoyable. For others, like Chapman, it is a bleaker image. Regardless, though, of the level of discomfort with the place, no one seems to shake Ohio. Ohio is imbedded in one’s identity. Even if it is a place the singer does not want to return to, it is still home—a home that needs to be contended with.
This metaphorical space of home provides a sentimental connection to Ohio while casting it as a place of the past in our imaginations. Ohio becomes a place that is not as contemporary and up-to-date as many other parts of the country. And this matters because popular narratives about places help cement our ideas of what we expect from and of those places. People from the Midwest are industrious but not progressive. The Midwest is stuck in the 90s. Etc. Some of concepts that feed these conversations are on the surface—“flyover states” for example—but our narratives of place often run deeper and are less obvious than we imagine. Songs about Ohio feed these unconscious stereotypes of the Midwest.
The perceptions of the Midwest are not just annoying to many who live and work in the region. They are a problem because of how limited are the stories they provide. After the recent presidential election, many media outlets have sought to “figure out” the region. The people that the national media outlets seem to find over and over again look rather homogenous. Many an article has been written about the plight of the “white working class man.” While these narratives are not false, they are also not representative of the entire region. I’m not arguing that we should ignore the industrial history of the region or that people are not struggling right now in traditionally working class jobs. Rather, we need to expand our narratives to paint a more complete picture of what Ohio, and by extension the Midwest, looks like.
When you go to a place seeking a narrative, it is more than likely that you will find that narrative. Our cultural perceptions of place feed and reinforce these ideas. Why aren’t stories of Ohio about the engineer at Case Western? Or the restaurateurs in Columbus? Where are the home health care workers? The farmers? The botanists? The park rangers? I’m asking us to get past the refrains of Ohio—even if the why oh, why oh, gets stuck in your head. We need to push ourselves to find complex stories in the region. And we need to listen to the people who spend their time there. We all have the right to our own story, and we should be seeking all of the stories of the Midwest—not just the ones that fit our preconceived views.
Brianne Jaquette: Mostly an academic.