With topics varying from homesickness to political activism, songs about Ohio challenge the stereotype that the “Buckeye State” is boring. Instead, they ask listeners to step into a specific moment in time: a childhood memory, a historical event, or an encounter with the state’s hidden wonders.
Here are 10 great songs that explore all walks of life in the great state of Ohio.
10 Great Songs About Ohio You’ll Love
Let’s begin with a song entitled “Ohio is for Lovers.”
“Ohio is for Lovers” by Hawthorne Heights
If your picture of Ohio is nothing but a laid-back farmland, the music scene in Dayton will completely defy your expectations. Considering that it is also the hometown of 90’s alternative rock standouts The Breeders and Brainiac, it’s no surprise that the Dayton band Hawthorne Heights rose to pop-punk stardom in the mid-2000’s.
Close to two decades after its release, “Ohio is for Lovers” still remains a memorable hit that explores the devastation of leaving your home behind – along with the people you love.
Appearing on their first album, The Silence in Black and White, this song was written shortly before the band departed on their first tour. Lead singer JT Woodruff said the song stemmed from the tension between the band members and their girlfriends over being away from home for the first time.
While it became one of the most memorable songs from the 2000’s emo era, “Ohio is for Lovers” wasn’t intended to be a hit. After the album was released, the song didn’t receive a lot of radio airplay and wasn’t included in the band’s live setlist. But the song quickly became a fan favorite and charted on Billboard’s Alternative Top 40 when it was released as a single.
So, what gave this song the staying power to become a standout hit of the genre? Woodruff thinks it was due to the song being part of the heavy but approachable sound that was emerging at the time. He described Hawthorne Heights as being “that gateway band dragging fans from a bigger band to an underground band.”
The song is structured in a way that eases new listeners into the heavier sound. Beginning with a gentle guitar intro, the song’s verses are comparatively reserved. But the chorus explodes into a rousing, intense cry for home, with dynamic shifts reminiscent of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” “Ohio is for Lovers” does serve as both an introduction to the pop-punk world and a gateway back to Dayton’s indie-rock roots.
But approachability alone isn’t what made this song a hit. It served as an anthem for the Ohio kids who were ready to hear their home described as a place to be longed for, not just driven through. In a world of media that depicts the state as being boring and empty, the song screamed out the truth: Ohio is for bold dreamers and passionate lovers.
“Ohio” by Damien Jurado
A delicate ballad that unfolds like a scene in a book, “Ohio” is a standout track by Damien Jurado. The song tells the story of the narrator’s encounter with a woman who is taking a taxi to her home in Ohio to see her mother. In this intimate moment between two strangers, the woman reveals that her father had taken her as a child and forced her to live in the city.
After sharing this moment of vulnerability, Jurado’s lyrics make it bittersweet for both the listener and the narrator to watch her leave and drive off to her home. “Ohio” is a beautiful and vulnerable vignette that offers a glimpse into the lives of strangers and what makes a place home to them.
“Dayton, Ohio – 1903” by Randy Newman
By far the most endearing song on this list, “Dayton, Ohio – 1903” captures the sweetness of a simpler time. The lyrics depict a perfect Sunday afternoon spent taking a leisurely stroll and having company over for tea, while the charming melody echoes the laid-back era Newman is describing.
Many listeners, including Harry Nilsson who covered the song on his Nilsson Sings Newman album, assumed “Dayton, Ohio – 1903” was referencing the Wright Brothers. After all, the famous aviators are their hometown’s claim to fame, and their first successful flight took place in 1903.
But Newman wasn’t aware of any of this when he wrote the song. He had no connection to Dayton, choosing it for the song only because he thought the city sounded like “trees and sprinklers.” Accidentally or not, “Dayton, Ohio – 1903” captures the state’s laid-back charm while paying a subtle tribute to the city’s soaring history.
“My City Was Gone” by The Pretenders
In this autobiographical track, The Pretender’s lead singer Chrissie Hynde dismays over the development and pollution that destroyed the “peaceful countryside” in her hometown of Akron, Ohio. While at first the song’s message is overshadowed by a lengthy intro and a groovy bassline, Hynde’s powerful vocals command attention with her opening lyrics “I went back to Ohio / but my city was gone.”
She describes the shock of her discoveries: her favorite places were paved over, her childhood home was abandoned, and the state’s iconic farms were replaced with shopping malls. Her lyrics are simple and straightforward but convey thesadness of watching nature’s beauty being destroyed in favor of concrete buildings and empty parking lots.
But for some listeners, “My City Was Gone” may have a different meaning. Conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh picked the tune’s intro to be the theme song for his nationally syndicated show. Limbaugh found irony in selecting the environmental anthem, stating that “if people were to learn the lyrics, they would be the antithesis of what they thought I was.” While Hynde and Limbaugh had strongly opposing political views, she allowed him to continue using the song as long as he paid royalties, which she donated to PETA.
For a state that is so politically diverse, the history and meaning behind the track seems to make it fitting theme song for Ohio. “My City Was Gone” describes the heartbreak of returning home, only to find that it has become just another place.
“Cuyahoga” by R.E.M.
Sharing parallels to “My City Was Gone,” “Cuyahoga” is a nostalgic track that discusses the pollution of the Cuyahoga River and the European colonization of North America. The rise of Cleveland’s manufacturing industry also meant a rise in industrial pollution, causing the Cuyahoga River to repeatedly catch on fire. Almost 20 years after the fires gained widespread attention in the environmental movement, R.E.M. penned the track.
Where “My City Was Gone” was a direct call-out of what has been lost, “Cuyahoga” takes a more reflective approach. Evoking nostalgia even on the first listen, the song is a time capsule filled with hope, loss, wonder, and yearning. The refreshingly honest lyrics deliver hard truths about our treatment of both people and nature.
The lines “Let’s put our heads together / and start a new country up” are simultaneously a criticism of destructive actions and a glimmer of hope, highlighting that just as we made choices that resulted in loss and injustice, we also have the power to make a different choice moving forward.
“Carry Me, Ohio” by Sun Kil Moon
Appearing on Sun Kil Moon’s first solo album, Ghosts of the Great Highway, “Carry Me Ohio” is one of the most beloved songs of the 2000’s indie-rock genre. After disbanding The Red House Painters, lead singer Mark Kozelek started releasing music under the name Sun Kil Moon. The reflectiveness that defined Kozelek’s previous music followed him into his new musical endeavor and is clearly heard on “Carry Me Ohio.”
Due to the delicately sung melody and the dissonant instrumentation, the song evokes wistfulness without even taking the lyrics into consideration. The repetitive melody allows you to fully sink into the song’s melancholy and gives you time to start digesting the poetic lyrics.
Like many other songs off of the album, “Carry Me Ohio” was inspired by both Kozelek’s hometown of Massillon, Ohio, and his ex-girlfriend Katy, who had passed away from cancer several years prior. Paired with imagery of Ohio’s landscapes, the lyrics confess regrets from his relationship and a strong yearning for the past. The song longs for both of his former loves–his ex-girlfriend, and the state they shared memories in.
“Going to Cleveland” by The Mountain Goats
Starting with disorienting static that sets the tone of the song, “Going to Cleveland” is a rough and honest realization that a relationship is coming to an end. In this opening track off of an early Mountain Goats album, singer and songwriter John Darnielle describes the agony of knowing a relationship is ending but struggling to walk away from a person you love.
The signature lo-fi sound that defined the Mountain Goats’ early music gives the impression that this song wasn’t intended to be heard; that it is a bedroom performance with lyrics straight out of someone’s diary.
Differing from other songs on this list, Darnielle writes about Cleveland not as a home to return to, but an escape to run towards. “Going to Cleveland” perfectly captures moments when your life has uprooted, leaving you to find a new place to run to.
“Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young
Held up as one of the greatest protest songs of all time, CSNY’s “Ohio” grapples with one of the darkest days in the state’s history. During a peace rally at Kent State University opposing the Vietnam War, the Ohio National Guard opened fire and killed four people. After seeing photos of the victims published in Life magazine, Neil Young was immediately moved to use his voice to protest. Released only a month after the shooting, the song quickly became a counterculture anthem.
Like many acts of protest, the song received both praise and backlash. Due to Young’s criticism of the Nixon administration in the lyrics, the song was initially banned on many AM radio stations, including in Ohio. But it wasn’t just the lyrics about President Nixon that were harsh – the entire song is a direct, powerful call-to-action, with no room for misinterpretation. There is nothing subtle about the quartet’s repeated refrain “Four dead in Ohio.”
Over fifty years after the song’s release, the question David Crosby cries out at the end of the song is still one we must ask all too often: “How many more?”
“Look Out Cleveland” by The Band
Tucked away in the middle of their self-titled album, The Band’s “Look Out Cleveland” is a rousing rock and roll jam. While the song is underrated compared to the hits “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “King Harvest,” it is a welcome burst of energy to brighten the album’s folksy, Americana sound. The thundering song describes an incoming storm, but the lyrics are almost a distraction from its true charms: the bluesy instrumentals and rocking melody.
There is debate over whether the song is about Cleveland, Ohio, or Cleveland, Texas. But right from the boogie-woogie piano intro, this song captures the heart of “The Birthplace of Rock and Roll.”
“Youngstown” by Bruce Springsteen
Although he was born and raised in New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen formed a profound connection with Youngstown, Ohio. After reading about the collapse of the steel industry, Springsteen was inspired to write about one of the cities that suffered the greatest consequences.
The melody and instrumentals of the song are simple, putting the focus entirely on the lyrics. Springsteen’s raw voice easily lends itself to storytelling, drawing you in to listen to the tale of Youngstown.
Told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, the song follows generations of steel factory workers in Youngstown, Ohio. Starting with the discovery of iron ore in a nearby creek, the song winds its way through the wars that the steel workers helped shape, either by building cannonballs and tanks, or by serving in the fight themselves.
The chorus crying out for “sweet Jenny” may lead you to believe that this is the tale of a sad romance. But there is no hidden love here. “Jenny” was the nickname for the Jeanette Blast Furnace, a steel manufacturer that shut down in 1977. Like many of the Rust Belt cities, Youngstown was hit hard by deindustrialization, forcing the town to rebuild both its economy and identity.
To most listeners, the song stands out as one of Springsteen’s finest songwriting moments about an infamous piece of history. But to those from Youngstown, it tells the story of their families, their environment, and their life in a city that sacrificed for generations only to lose it all.
Looking for some songs about Cleveland Ohio? Don’t worry–we didn’t forget “Cleveland Rocks!”
“Cleveland Rocks” from The Drew Carey Show
Well, we didn’t want to be cliche, but this is too notable of a song to ignore. Featured in the 1990s sitcom “The Drew Carey Show,” the song “Cleveland Rocks” was a proud anthem that shouted out Drew Carey’s hometown. The show regularly featured comments and conversation about Ohio, and Drew’s character (just like himself) was a big Cleveland Browns fan.
It may not be one of the best songs about the Buckeye State, but it’s probably one of the most well known.
When musicians write about Ohio, they aren’t writing about a place. They are writing about the culmination of memories, family, and life experiences that shaped the way they see the world. Songs about Ohio challenge listeners to reexamine their definition of “home” and find beauty in the unexpected.
Besides a “Pittsburgh Sucks” chant–what more can you really ask for?
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