Cool Green Science readers responded to my recent post about my top 10 river songs with an impressive range of their own favorites. For Earth Day, I’m posting a list of my top songs that evoke environmental awareness, protest or celebration — and asking you once again to tell us about your favorites in the comments below.
Reviewing the choices, it strikes me that it can be difficult to pull off an “environmental song” without devolving into preachiness (Exhibit A: Death of Mother Nature Suite by '70s progressive folk-rock group Kansas). So, for the most part, I chose songs that work as songs and that successfully walk the line between sincere and sanctimonious.
My list contains two basic types of songs — those that chronicle environmental ravages and/or aim to inspire awareness, action etc.; and those that simply celebrate the beauty, wonder and regenerative capacity of nature.
Johnny Cash: Don’t Go Near the Water. This song’s litany of environmental insults — air pollution, water pollution, toxins — could have been the soundtrack to the first Earth Day. OK, so the lyrics are a bit preachy (“We’re torturing the Earth and pourin’ every kind of evil in the sea/We violated nature and our children have to pay the penalty…”) but then again, this is coming from the Man in Black and if he wants to preach, you better sit up straight and listen good.
Neil Young: After the Gold Rush. Embedded within elliptical lyrics in the verses, Neil’s chorus — “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s”– makes it clear: If we don’t change our ways, she may need to board a spaceship and find refuge elsewhere.
Various Artists: Damn, Where Did My Appalachia Go? The intertwined decline of Appalachia’s communities and environment practically constitutes its own genre whose standard is John Prine’s Paradise: “Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County down by the Green River where Paradise lay/Well I’m sorry my son but you’re too late in asking, Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.” This song gets bonus points for its reference to the first river where The Nature Conservancy and the Corps of Engineers collaborated to improve flows below a dam. The Cowboy Junkies’ eulogy for a dying Appalachian town, Last Spike, mournfully observes that once a community has been stripped of its natural resource base — “I’ve watched the flat cars take away our timber/I’ve watched the coal cars steal our rock” — it fades, slowly and sadly, into oblivion.
Red Hot Chili Peppers: Road Trippin’. The referenced road trip is to Big Sur in this celebration of the beauty and restorative power of California’s coast: “Blue you sit so pretty west of the One/Sparkles light with yellow icing, just a mirror for the sun.”
Wilco: California Stars. These words — written by Woody Guthrie — drifted through my head as I first fell asleep under a moonless sky in a Sierra Nevada wilderness: “I’d like to dream my troubles all away, on a bed of California stars.”
The Eagles: The Last Resort. A chronicle of the settlement of the American West and a bittersweet tribute to its rugged allure that continually draws new people who inevitably destroy the very values — serenity, pristine wildness — that they seek: “They call it paradise, I don’t know why/Call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye.” A warning that the beauty described in the previous two songs must be embraced carefully, lest we strangle it.
Joni Mitchell: Big Yellow Taxi. For many people, this is the environmental song with its chorus: “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone/They paved paradise, put up a parking lot.”
Talking Heads: (Nothing But) Flowers. With its whimsical imagery of serene nature, this song initially appears to be a wishful reversal of Joni’s song: “Once there were parking lots, now it’s a peaceful oasis/This was a Pizza Hut, now it’s all covered with daisies.” But on closer listen, it’s not a plea for dismantling society and returning to the simplicity of our hunter-gatherer roots. First, the singer wishes he had a lawnmower to help manage nature’s vegetative exuberance and then he longs for Dairy Queens and 7-Elevens to break up a monotonous diet of nuts, berries and … rattlesnake. Is David Byrne reminding us that we can’t simply wish to return to some imagined idyllic Eden but instead must find solutions that work for both people and nature? Or am I imposing The Nature Conservancy’s mission statement onto cheeky phrases backed by irresistibly catchy Afro-pop guitar riffs and rhythms? Whatever it is, it works.
...to the Gulf Stream waters... (Photo: Jeff Opperman/TNC)
Eddie Vedder: Society. From the soundtrack of Into The Wild, this is a near-perfect marriage of message, music and voice. Vedder channels the film’s protagonist through a withering indictment of a modern culture obsessed with material gain at the expense of deeper connections with nature and each other: “It’s a mystery to me, we have a greed with which we have agreed/You think you have to want more than you need, until you have it all you won’t be free.”
The Pretenders: My City Was Gone. Only Chrissie Hynde could make a song about land use and zoning sound so nasty — and catchy. Her voice drips with sarcasm and disgust for a “government that had no pride” that allowed her city’s downtown to be hollowed out, filled with nothing but desultory parking lots, even as the suburbs sprawled inexorably outward: “The farms of Ohio had been replaced by shopping malls, and muzak filled the air from Seneca to Cuyahoga Falls.” The jarring juxtaposition of muzak — synonymous with soulless sterility — and Native American names reminds that that a culture’s health and vibrancy reflects that of its surrounding landscape, and that both suffer at the hands of homogeneous and careless development. The Pretenders recently updated this theme with a proposed solution. In Break Up the Concrete, Hynde again mourns the loss of a more verdant landscape before calling for restoration and renewal: “prod it, sod it, metal rod it … break up the concrete.”
Marvin Gaye: Mercy, Mercy Me (the Ecology). In this classic from the era of the first Earth Day, Marvin prays for both spiritual and environmental renewal.
Bruce Springsteen: This Land is Your Land. On his live album, Springsteen introduces this Woody Guthrie song as “just about one of the most beautiful song ever written.” His simple but impassioned rendition makes the case that people and landscape are symbionts that sustain each other. I wish the Conservancy would use this song in a TV or web commercial as a stirring reminder that, across all that may divide us, we can be bound together by the ties of a beautiful landscape, one that is worth saving and renewing.
Please add your own lists of essential songs for Earth Day in the comments below. Consider it a vote, so don’t worry about repeats; I’ll tabulate the results and post a list of the readers’ favorites.
— Text by Jeff Opperman, Cool Green Science Blog