In observance of Earth Day on April 22, this month’s edition of JusticeAid’s Twelve Months of Music that Matters focuses on songs about protecting the only mother we all share—this planet. Even with all that is going on in our world right now, we cannot forget that we need to protect the environment in which we all live.
As always, we give “protest songs” a broad reading. For example, when an artist creates music that expresses love for our earth, she is helping to protect the earth, and she is protesting what others are doing to it. So, some of our songs are about loving the earth, some are about how we have pushed people off their land in order to exploit the earth, and others speak more specifically to individual environmental issues. As usual, we highlight 10 songs with commentary and the occasional video link, but our playlists include additional cuts to round out our thinking about perhaps the most important justice issue of all: protecting the world that gives us life. We hope you are spurred to your own actions to keep our world intact.
Mercy, Mercy Me
Last month we highlighted What’s Going On, in connection with our anti-war blog. However, this song may be even more important, as it brought concern for the environment to an entirely new listening audience and did so with captivating production. This one is all Marvin Gaye—conceived, written, and produced. However, for a change of pace here is a great version from Usher, live at the White House, with President Obama and the First Lady rocking out to it.
Big Yellow Taxi
Written by: Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell has been widely quoted as saying this song was inspired by her first trip to Hawaii when she woke to a view of a parking lot out of her hotel window. She broadened the song to cover a range of environmental issues, and it still stands the test of time (and it helped get rid of the use of DDT). Here is a lovely live version by a very charming young Joni.
Beds Are Burning
Written by Midnight Oil
On its surface, this song is not about environmental issues, but we planned on highlighting it from the inception of our work on this month’s blog. The song is about the failures to address Aboriginal rights in Australia, a large part of which concern the exploitation of those peoples related to what was done to their environment. One reason why our environment gets so damaged is a psychology that does not take responsibility for all lands—a psychology that treats lands of others as being available for exploitation. This psychology becomes particularly clear when we see the exploitation to native lands by those who arrive later and occupy them. The decision to include the song was hammered home by the amazing version released in connection with the Kofi Annan “tck tck tck: Time for Climate Justice” campaign, with modified lyrics to focus on climate change.
Written by: Prolific the Rapper & A Tribe Called Red
This one is a great collaboration and it concerns a similar sort of issue: an oil pipeline on native lands, with the corresponding environmental damage to water resources. As Prolific the Rapper says, “She is your mother, her fresh water is her veins.” A Tribe Called Red is a First Nations band, out of Canada, whose music has been described as “pow wow step.” Prolific is a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, whose music reflects his activism. This collaboration is emblematic of more contemporary environmental issues and how they affect other peoples’ lands. We can only include the actual song in our YouTube playlist, as Spotify does not have it! Here is a version with good video.
After the Gold Rush
Written by Neil Young
Young has been an outspoken advocate and recorded many songs about environmental issues. This version of After the Gold Rush, performed at LiveAid in 1998, may not be his most explicit (other than “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970’s”), but it haunts and sticks, and it announces a lifetime of concern on his part. The song ends with a fantasy about escaping what we have done here:
“Flying Mother Nature’s silver seed to a new home in the sun.”
He never believed that was possible, and nor do we: this world is ours to fix. In recognition of his focus on these issues, this second video is a live recording of another one of his songs about our environment, Mother Earth.
Songs that highlight our environment have evolved over the years. For example, climate change was not on Marvin Gaye’s radar when he recorded Mercy, Mercy Me. However, our interconnectedness with nature and our environment has been clear to some for a long time. As the great John Muir put it, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” The songs we highlight this month understand how we “tug” at nature, and that we need to make sure we do not yank it out of order. This an issue of justice—of fairness to the earth and of fairness to those who will follow us in this world. Muir also said that, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” That is true, and it obligates us to ensure we pay back what nature has given us. Now, back to the songs.
Shapes of Things
Written by Yardbirds
This one was ahead of its time. In 1966, most of the rock world had not caught up with environmentalism. It’s hard to believe these Brits barely past adolescence recorded this song years before Mercy, Mercy Me, Big Yellow Taxi, or After the Gold Rush:
Now the trees are almost green
But will they still be seen
When time and tide have been?
Fallin’ into your passing hands
Please don’t destroy these lands
Don’t make them desert sands
Here is a live version from 1967, and including Jimmy Page having fun on guitar. It is the only “live” version we could find that was not lipsynched.
Farewell to Tarwathie
Written by Judy Collins
In the late 1960’s, researchers began to understand that whales don’t just make noises, they sing songs. They make repetitive and beautiful communicative noises (and if that ain’t song, tell us what is). One of the researchers, Roger Payne, snuck back to Judy Collins’ dressing room one night and handed her a tape of whale songs. Collins used that recording as background to an old sad whaling song. Inclusion of whale song completely transports the song’s impact, with the whales’ plaintive music undermining any notion of killing them. Here is a live version of Collins performing the song, also with that haunting whale accompaniment. The song helped efforts greatly in advocating to deter commercial whaling. When you love something, it is harder to hurt it.
Written by Paul Winter
1968 (with wolves)
Paul Winter and his Consort led, and in many ways conceived, the effort to make music with accompaniment of whales, wolves, and other species. They first recorded with humpback whales, creating some amazing music. However, wolves soon caught Winter’s attention, and he wrote this song about wolf music. Wolves have individual dialect, different localized vocalizations, and the recording on our playlist is Winter accompanied by two wolves. He argues that there is a universality in the music of our fellow inhabitants: “All are in the key of D-flat. That must be the earth’s key.”
Monkey Gone to Heaven
Written by The Pixies
In these selections, we don’t only focus on the lovely uplifting songs about our environment. There is a need to recognize the impact of our assault on nature. The Pixies capture that assault here, in a great song that begins as a direct focus on our harm to the environment and then, appropriately enough, descends into a more dystopian closing. Here is a nice video of a live version.
Written by Dave Alvin
This song shows the love of one mysterious man for what the natural environment offers, and what society does not. It is a haunting song about the enigmatic Ruess, who disappeared into Utah’s Escalante wilderness. Alvin imagines Ruess arguing that “God is here in the canyons, with the rattlesnakes and pinon pines,” not in the “grand cathedrals” where we “try to trap God.” It is a paean to the American West, and Ruess’s love for that place continues to inspire its protection today. Here is a rowdy live version, in which Alvin introduces the song with Ruess’s background, disappearance, and the efforts to find his remains. (The song itself begins after four minutes.) For the playlist, we use the shorter studio version.
Whatever songs you sing today, JusticeAid sings them with you.
We hope you enjoy this month’s edition of Songs that Matter. The songs can help us remember that our impulse to justice comes from empathy, and empathy with our planet is a first step towards justice for all—including justice for those who will come after us.
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