No matter how hard you try, it is nearly impossible to explain to someone from outside the Northeast Ohio region what it fully means to have lived here. Beyond simply being recognized as “the birthplace of LeBron James” (a badge we wear proudly, no less), the area comprising of cities like Akron, Cleveland, and Youngstown has had its fill in making contributions to the unique identity that has shaped the place we call home.
When I find myself in that puzzling situation of expressing what it has meant to live in Northeast Ohio, I often turn to art to assist me—specifically, the musical talents of Akron-natives, The Black Keys.
As the rock group that exploded onto the music scene with their distinctive blues-rock sound, The Black Keys have managed to stay true to their Akron roots despite their celebrated levels of success. Before their two most recent albums, Turn Blue and El Camino respectively, the band released their sixth album Brothers in 2010. While I could endlessly discuss why Brothers is probably my favorite album by the band and the number of times I’ve sang along to my favorite track “These Days” is countless, there remains one song in particular that speaks true to the essence of being an Ohioan.
“Ohio,” the aptly named bonus track on the album, carries with it the power to translate an embodiment that is often difficult to describe. In one line, lead singer Dan Auerbach soulfully sings, “Break your back / And never wonder why,” accompanied by drummer Patrick Carney’s steady rhythm. This individual line, though simple and straightforward, possesses an understanding of the very quality that illustrates Northeast Ohio so well: our work ethic.
Since the time Cleveland was recognized as a top manufacturing center in the 20th century and Akron the “Rubber Capital of the World,” the region has been heavily populated by working and middle-class families. The development of a strong middle class has lead to generations of young people growing up with the same mindset toward achieving success.
“Ohio,” then, is an ode to blue collar work ethic. “Break your back” represents the hard work that must be put in by every individual; “And never wonder why” implies that this devotion to hard work is never questioned.
Ingrained in all of us who have ever lived in Northeast Ohio, whether we grew up here or are transplants, is the mentality that nothing is given, and everything is earned. We persevere in every one of our endeavors, allowing no obstacle to keep us from striving toward our goals. Our steadfast determination to fulfill aspirations doesn’t stop with ourselves, either. Northeast Ohioans are rooted by nature with a sense of community, as well as the idea that we can achieve success by lifting others up rather than stepping on them to get ahead. Our approach to humility is what connects us, and ultimately, is the very thing we miss the most when we’re away from home.
In the final verse of “Ohio,” Auerbach sings, “Get me home/ Before I, before I lose my mind / I need some space to let my / My tape rewind,” reminding us that our special place on the map will always be a refuge when we’re feeling lost. It’s important during moments of vulnerability to figuratively return to the place that has imparted so much on us, and the values that remind us of who we are echo brilliantly throughout this song.
Check out the video “Shout Out to Akron” below: