Music is one of the greatest storytelling media. Art can lay claim to being the oldest – but only from a human perspective. Birds, insects and animals were sending messages through song long before we started drawing on cave walls.
Music has the euphoric power to move us in a way that rivals a cliff-top ocean sunset. It connects us to environment, warns us of danger, and inspires us to change.
Because it’s World Environment Day every day (and you can only listen to Rip Rip Woodchip so many times), here is some of my favourite earth music to keep you in an ecological mood year-round.
Midnight Oil – River Runs Red (1990: Blue Sky Mining)
Midnight Oil don’t need an introduction, and this song is one of their best. Whether your cause is logging, pollution, oil or just general ecological tragedies, this song demands that you care. The best version is the one sung live outside the Exxon Oil HQ in 1990. The DVD of this ‘guerrilla’ concert is aptly named Black Rain Falls, after this song…it’s even better viewing on video cassette. Watch it.
Seminole Wind – John Anderson (1992: Seminole Wind)
A lyrical story of progress traps from an old-school country music legend. The opening piano/violin waltz checks you in your tracks and beckons you to follow Anderson’s tale, which he paints lyrically with a succession of vivid images.
The swampy Florida Everglades (Anderson’s home range) were seen as an obstacle to progress ever since Europeans moved to the area. “In the name of flood control”, canal building started in the late 1800s in an attempt to drain the wetlands (which, ironically, provide flood control services) and replace them with towns and agriculture. In the process, numerous species all but disappeared and the ecosystem services provided by the wetlands were lost. In 1947, the Everglades became a national park, and it has been an ongoing process to restore biodiversity and ecological functions since.
There’s a kind of dramatic irony in painting the Seminole as the victims in this story. The original Everglades ‘locals’ were actually the Calusa people, who were living off the estuarine fisheries of the Florida peninsula as early as 5000 BC. But, like many American natives, the Calusa rapidly declined, from disease and conflict, after Europeans arrived in the 1500s. In contrast, the Seminole nation was born in the 17-1800s from rebels & runaways of other Indian groups, particularly the Creek nation from the north. And it seems Seminole weren’t averse to all forms of progress. They were often on good terms with the colonial settlers and were very involved in trade and commerce.
But with a bit of poetic licence, we still feel the ache of ecological loss in this song. So blow, blow wind, whether it be Seminole or Calusa; we can tell the Everglades would be a lot happier with their long lost friends.
Recommended reading: The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise, Michael Grunwald.
Harmony James – Coal Seam Gas (2014: Cautionary Tales)
Harmony’s latest album contains this gem, a CSG protest ballad that deserves a lot more airplay. As a southeast Queensland local, I’ve been devastated to see “mankind and nature defeated” through CSG development. Whatever black-and-white economic sense it appears to make, is it worth the social-ecological price?
These pastures are all that I taught him
Now we’ll lock up the gate with the one barb, two plain
On the place meant to be his someday.
But I guess that won’t happen now
Since someone discovered what lies in our ground
And the dollars it pays are worth more than the life in this place.
Don’t go near the water – Johnny Cash (1974: Ragged Old Flag)
Not many people would consider Johnny Cash an environmentalist. This 1974 song from the great man was an exception from his usual blues, and it is not to be confused with the Beach Boys pasty anti-toothpaste ad of the same name.
The early 1970s saw an increasing awareness of environmental issues, as the momentum built from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (published 1962). The first Earth Day was held in 1970, RAMSAR was signed in 1971, while 1972 was the year unleaded petrol was born and the US banned DDT. The first western ‘oil crisis’ came in 1973, when ordinary citizens were suddenly faced with the reality that newly-found automotive freedom came at a price, after all!
This song is not one of Cash’s most well-known, but it achieved retrospective fame as a protest anthem for the 2010 BP oil spill. It’s not clear whether Cash was referring to oil, pesticides or just general water abuse. But human settlements are always linked to a water source, and flow modification, land-use change and harvesting are key drivers of freshwater ecosystem change around the world.
We’re torturin’ the earth, and pourin’ every kind of evil in the sea, we violated nature, and our children have to pay the penalty
…it could have been written yesterday.
Truth Comes Out – Corb Lund (2006: Hair In My Eyes Like a Highland Steer)
A stirring climate change anthem from a Canadian country legend.
The weather’s been funny thirty years or so,the winters got warm, not as much snow.
The snow plough driver might get a holiday, but it’s not all good news. Cue brazen cougars offing colts in the yard and “grizzlies where there was no grizzly bears before”. This is serious stuff, and it would bode us well to pay attention to the “half heard voices from the graves”.
Traditional and ecological knowledge are intrinsically linked. Pre-modern cultures were connected to the land, living alongside ecological cycles and patterns because it affected their survival. We’ve now replaced natural cycles with reverse cycle, but it’s not too late to get back in touch.
White man light a big fire, stay cold
the red man’s warmer, but the old man’s old
(I also highly recommend the rest of Corb Lund’s repertoire, particularly the tongue-in-cheek ode to Big Ag ‘The Truck Got Stuck’.)
Led Zeppelin – When the Levee Breaks (1971: Led Zeppelin IV)
This was an old blues song from the 1920s written by Kansas Joe McKoy and Memphis Minnie about the Great Mississippi Flood in 1927, the greatest flood in history for the Mississippi region. The flood hit in April, after months of heavy rainfall; New Orleans recorded its highest ever rainfall in one day, on April 15. Newly-built levees broke and thousands of square kilometres of human progress were wiped out across the region. But the river was just trying to find its way to the sea, as it had done for millions of years before.
Sadly, the original song was just not that emotive. So LZ reworked it, incorporating all the power, intensity and rage of a flooding river into the tune. The hypnotic drum, soggy guitar and harmonica solos conjure up the pull of flooding water and the tragedy that grips long after the waters ebb. If you don’t respect the power of nature after listening to this, you need to listen to it a bit more often.
Recommended reading: Rising Tide, John Barry
Vivaldi – Four Seasons (c. 1723: Op. 8)
Most classical music would make the cut on a list of ‘earth songs’. Once upon a time, everything was inspired by, or depended on, Nature. Seasons had a particular effect on us – they affected our health, our diet, our work, and our circadian rhythms. We miss that today.
This set of concertos is one of my favourite nature connections. Vivaldi composed the Four Seasons at the heart of the Scientific Revolution. The four concerti are part of a larger set published in 1725 as Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’invenzione (The contest between harmony and invention). Despite the coincidental use of words, I don’t think Vivaldi’s use of the word ‘invention’ is a comment on modern science. In music, the word refers to novel compositional categories that don’t fit into a recognised, contemporary form.
Music that puts us back in touch with natural cycles couldn’t be a more fitting earth serenade. Not surprisingly, the ‘Spring’ movement has been shown to enhance mental alertness. But if you haven’t yet experienced the pleasure of ‘air violin’, listen to ‘Winter’.
What are your earth songs?
© Manu Saunders 2015