Music, they say, is a universal language. No matter the instrument or where the music comes from– the notes, chords and scales are the same. They just work. There is no space between B and C or E and F on all instruments. We are all tuned internally and whether we can play it or not, we know what sounds right.
And they say music reflects the sentiments of the culture, from Blues to Rap. And for me, it seems like song-writers can often tap into the collective consciousness allowing us to really relate to certain songs.
Some of these songs have been around for half of a century now, playing in the background and in our subconscious. They have strong messages that are still relevant today.
Of course art is subject to interpretation. So some of these songs are commonly interpreted as having an environmental message, and some just really resonated with me. You can google “songs with an environmental message” and get many hits, with different interpretations of songs.
Here are some, from my perspective, that have really impacted me and why:
Last Great American Whale – Lou Reed – Listening to this song with a couple friends twenty years ago really helped shape my attitude toward environmentalism. In the second part of the song he sings:
Well Americans don’t care for much of anything
land and water the least
And animal life is low on the totem pole
with human life not worth much more than infected yeast
Americans don’t care too much for beauty
They’ll shit in a river, dump battery acid in a stream
They’ll watch dead rats wash up on the beach
and complain if they can’t swim
After the song one friend Jeff comments on how it’s cool the song has such a strong environmental message. Then Jack says, “Yes, he points out issues but offers no solutions!” So Jeff’s reply was that as an artist/musician, he’s not an expert or scientist, and creating awareness is an important first step.
So because of this, I feel I’ve tried to practice my environmentalism with a solution-based perspective. And I’ll admit, much of it is based on the bicycle, reel mowers, and re-use, but still forms of conservation.
After the Gold Rush – Neil Young – “We got Mother Nature on the run, in the 1970’s, look at Mother Nature on the run, in the 1970’s.” In this song the chorus is straight-forward, but the title has great insight to the issue. Not just basic human nature, but greed has really driven climate change, in my opinion. Regardless, Neil has stood up for environmental causes throughout his career. In 2014 he and Willie Nelson played to 8,000 people in rural Nebraska to protest the Keystone Pipeline.
Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology) – Marvin Gaye – The album What’s Going On, comes from the perspective of a young African-American soldier coming back from serving in the Vietnam War. So not only does the album point out the incredible social injustices going on, but environmental injustices also, especially on this song. “Radiation in the ground, mercury in the sea, Mercy, Mercy Me!”
Burn On by Randy Newman was released in 1972 on Sail Away, a few years after the 1969 Cuyahoga River Fire. The chorus puts it well, “The Lord can make you tumble, the Lord can make you turn, the Lord can make you overflow, but the Lord can’t make you burn! Burn on big river, burn on.”
Although that 1969 Fire wasn’t the only time the river burned, and was not the most destructive, it got the most attention and made us aware of how polluted our rivers were from decades of dumping industrial waste. The Clean Water Act of 1972 was a result of this and other environmental disasters that were caused by the attitude that pollution was a necessary and acceptable consequence of industry. The Burning River That Sparked a Revolution
How the West was Won / Wake-up Bomb / Low Desert – REM – New Adventures in Hi-Fi was released in 1996 and was their 10th album. These three songs scream environmental messages, to me. How the West was Won is the first song on the album and sets the tone. The first verse then chorus;
Blood from a stone
Water from wine
Born under an ill-placed design
A stroke of bad luck,
Wrong place, wrong time
This flier is out of the lime
The story is a sad one, told many times
The story of my life in trying times
Just add water, stir in lime
How the west was won and where it got us
The way we’ve settled the West, manipulated the scarce water resource, is an “ill-placed design”.
Then the song Wake-up Bomb is obvious to me, because we need to wake the hell up!
The first verse of Low Desert is about a car crash, but I think the whole song is a metaphor about society and our impending environmental car-crash. It’s a perfect metaphor. The crash takes place “where we never belong, and people thrive on their own contempt”. So, “if you had to guess or make a bet, would you place yourself inside of it?”
Idioteque by Radiohead – This song is commonly interpreted as having a strong environmental message, though the band doesn’t say. How can we not interpret some of these lyrics, with the haunting and intense music, as a commentary on our greed, over-consumption, and views on climate change?
“Everything all of the time. Ice age coming and Ice age coming, let me hear both sides, let me here both sides. Throw it in the fire. We’re not scaremongering, this is really happening, this is really happening. Take the money and run take the money and run. Everything all of the time.”
Where Do the Children Play? – Cat Stevens – This song was in Harold and Maude, and on the soundtrack, but it was written and released before the movie, also in the early 70’s. What I’ve always appreciated about this song is that he acknowledges that there are benefits with progress, while pointing out that there are faults also.
Whoops – Blues Traveler – He has so much to say in this song that I don’t need to interpret any of it, just listen to it. “We’re cutting down the air we breathe.” “Earth was a Heaven and we did not know.”
These songs, this music, came with the beginning of the environmental movement in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, after Rachael Carlson wrote Silent Spring, and environmental disasters happened from the Cuyahoga River to the Love Canal. But there also seemed to be much more put out again in the 1990’s, after, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, we started hearing about Global Warming, and Al Gore put out Earth in the Balance.
There are so many more of these songs with subtle and not-so-subtle messages. Thank you to the artists that make us think and put these messages out there!