Graham Nash, 77, wrote “Teach Your Children” back when Crosby, Stills, and Nash still had Neil Young on board (which was only about a 20-month period all together).
When it was released in March 1970, it quickly became a Top 20 single. The song was featured on the CSNY album Déjà Vu
Ironically, "déjà vu" describes the feeling Nash had watching his brand of protest music become applicable again a half century later.
Last fall, he decided to release a new video for the nearly 50-year-old track after feeling inspired by the Parkland survivors’ activism and watching two million people join the “March for Our Lives” protest across the country last year.
The emotionally-charged animated video (created by artist Jeff Scher) draws an eerie parallel between the 1960s anti-war and civil rights movements and the new wave of protests since the 2016 presidential election.
The video bounces from black and white scenes of 1960s protests like Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington and the Kent State shootings to color images of the current era of protest with scenes of the “March For Our Lives” and “Black Lives Matter” marches.
The two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and Grammy-winner will bring his current tour dubbed an Intimate Evening of Songs and Stories with Graham Nash to the Akron Civic Theatre at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 16. In this recent phone interview, he speaks about the current political climate.
I read that you like playing small theaters, like this show in Akron, because it’s important to you to make a personal connection with your audience.
Yeah, and also, you know, for people that enjoy music but don’t write music, the art of songwriting is kind of mysterious to them. That’s why sometimes before or after I sing a song I tell 'em where my head was at when I wrote it because they are dying to know how did “Our House” come to me. [Fans often ask,] "How did 'Teach Your Children' come to you? How did 'Military Madness' come to you?" People are really interested in the actual creative process, and I find that very interesting.
So, shows like these are your opportunity to share some of those insights?
Absolutely. A couple of the things that I need from audiences is, first of all, they need to know that I want to be there to make music for them. I’m not gonna phone it in; I’m not gonna do any less than my absolute best. I need them to know that I wannna be there, and secondly — and probably most importantly — I wanna see ‘em smiling on their way out. That’s when I know I’ve done my job.
What kind of set can we expect from an intimate show like this? How do you decide what to include?
Well, I’ve written several hundred songs, so it gets to be difficult, but I do know what people expect to hear. They expect to hear “Our House,” and they expect to hear “Teach Your Children," so I know what those are, but my audience has always expected that they may hear a song that was written that morning. It happened when Michael Brown got killed in Ferguson. [Songwriter] Shane Fontayne and I wrote a song that morning, and we played it that night. My audiences expect that. So, what they will get is a broader range of music that stretches all the way from the Hollies all the way through to today.
I want to talk about the video you released last year for 1970’s “Teach Your Children.” I must say it was haunting.
What I realized when I saw what happened in Parkland in Florida with that school shooting was that the students that were left alive have tremendous passion. They’re going around the country registering people to vote. They’re encouraging people not to vote for politicians that take money from the NRA or the gun lobby and it’s a tremendous amount of energy. In “Teach Your Children” in the first part, I say “teach your children well,” but in the second part of the song, I say, “teach your parents well.” There’s a lot we can learn from these kids. These kids are not gonna let this issue die. They’re gonna completely get into it more. I mean that guy David Hogg, [he’s] so expressive in terms of his thought processes about what’s going on. I can definitely see that kid going into politics.
How does it feel for a song you wrote 50 years ago to so closely match current events?
I feel two ways about it. First of all, I’m really pleased that music has lasted all this long, but secondly, it’s a pain in the ass to have to keep singing “Immigration Man,” which I wrote 50 years ago. Why is immigration not relevant today? Is “Military Madness” not relevant today? I wrote that song about my father going off to World War II, for God’s sake. We don’t seem to have learned much.
The “Teach Your Children" video also featured a snippet of what happened at Kent State. The 50-year anniversary of the May 4, 1970 shootings is coming up next year. Any thoughts?
Yes. I think I’ve never understood why the name of the person that ordered for live ammunition in their rifles — we have no idea who that was. You know, no one has apologized to the families. No one to this day. Someone gave the order to not only load live ammunition into their riffles, but they ordered to fire. Here’s basically what happened with the song “Ohio…” David [Crosby] and Neil [Young] were off at a friend’s house in northern California enjoying the weekend. Crosby called me, and I was in Los Angeles, and he said, “Book the studio, book the engineer, book the band; we’re coming down.” I said, “Wow, you sound intense, Davey. What’s going on?” He said, “Wait until you hear this song that I just watched Neil write.” I said, “What’s it about?” He said that it’s about Kent State, and I said, “OK, I’m in.” So, we booked the studio and recorded the song. We wanted it out as a single, so we recorded the B-side “Find the Cost of Freedom,” and in a couple of hours, we mixed both songs. We gave it to Ahmet Ertegun who was the owner of Atlantic Records who happened to be at the studio that day. We told him to put it out as a single. Ahmet, as a good businessman, said, “Wait a second; we just put out ‘Teach Your Children’ and it’s going up into the top 10.” We said, Kill it. It’s much more important for America to know that we are killing our children over their God-given right to protest what the government is doing in their name rather than me having another hit single.” I had 15 top 10 singles with the Hollies before I ever met David and Stephen. So, it was way more important that we put “Ohio” out immediately. Quite frankly, the graphics for the cover of the 45 was a copy of the U.S. Constitution with four bullet holes in it.
Why do you suppose we don’t see any many musical responses to tragedies like we did 50 years ago?
Because the people that own the world’s media you can probably count on two hands. The first thing they want to do is turn you into sheep. They want you to lie down. It's like, "Shut up while we sell you another pair of sneakers and another cola." They learned with the Vietnam War that you can’t let the people know too much. When we were watching the evening news with Walter Cronkite, and he tells us how many Americans are being killed that day, eventually, the public got pissed off, and they put pressure on their congressmen and senators and presidents to stop this madness. But the world’s media learned that. You never saw anything about Panama. You never saw anything about Grenada. You couldn’t even photograph the flag-covered coffins of the people that have died in Afghanistan and in Iraq. But if you go to somewhere like the “Living With War” website of Neil Young’s, you’ll find 3,000 protest songs on there. Will you hear them on the radio? Of course not.
In a 2016 Billboard interview, you said that artists have a responsibility to reflect the times and that people have a responsibility to try to make it better for the next generation. What do you see for the next generation of mainstream music if it’s not willing to go to the depths that CSNY was willing to go?
I think that people will be controlled by the companies that run this world. We will be completely controlled by it as we are now. You can’t get protest songs on radio or television. They don’t want them on there. You can’t let the people know too much because they will destroy the status quo and they will start to rock this gigantic boat. I see incredible damage from climate change. I see the nuclear problem getting worse and worse with these plans to make smaller nuclear bombs for the battlefield. It’s all madness. There’s so much money to be made by the gun companies and the weapon’s manufacturers that they will not stop this.
Do you have any advice for up and coming artists who are including political messages in their music?
I think you have to do two things. First of all, you have to follow your heart. Your heart knows what’s right for you. Your heart knows what’s wrong for you. Make the correct choice because life is only a question of billions of choices. You have to make the right choice. Then, you have to speak your mind. It was very easy for somebody like CSNY to be able to tell their record company to kill a single and put out a new one. But we had power, and we utilized that power of selling plastic. That’s all we were doing. We utilized that power to be town criers. To go from village to village to let the people know that the emperor really doesn’t have any clothes on.
What do you hope to see for the future of music?
I hope to see more creation, more love, more inflammation, more courage in talking about issues that people may not want to think about.
Looking at other areas of your career, you’re also an internationally renowned photographer. You had a gallery at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown years ago actually. How did photography begin for you?
It began when I was 10 years old. My father taught me how to make photographs. When I saw him put a blank piece of paper into a colorless liquid and then wait a few seconds and have this image appear out of nowhere. That magic has never left me.
You talked with Stephen Colbert a few years ago about knowing the Beatles before they were the Beatles.
Well first of all, when I first saw them, I realized that there was something very important going on. I mean they came into a nightclub where I was working with leather coats on and every girl threw their knickers at them before they’d heard a note. Everybody knew that the Beatles were gonna open up gigantic doors for everybody, and that’s exactly what they did. And yes, I’d known them since November 1959. I even remember the date; it was the 19th of November.
I’m sure that date will never leave you.
I’ve got so many memories that will hopefully never leave me.
An Intimate Evening of Songs and Stories with Graham Nash, 8 p.m. Saturday, March 16, Akron Civic Theatre, 182 S. Main St. Akron, 330-253-2488. Tickets: $53-$93, akroncivic.com.