Environmental activism has long been intertwined with music so, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, I came up with a playlist. I ran it by my family. My daughter, Wren, observed that many of the songs were as old as I am (about the same as Earth Day itself). So Wren came up with an alternative playlist, drawn from current music.
Here are our offerings — one from a “Generation X” father and one from a “Generation Z” daughter. And while some of the songs sound warnings about environmental degradation, many focus on the healing power of nature — something all generations can draw on right now.
Please submit your own suggestions for Earth Day songs via social media (#SoundtrackForEarthDay) and we’ll create a crowdsourced version to go with these (ours are both very US-centric).
Don’t Go Near the Water; Johnny Cash. 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.
After the Gold Rush; Neil Young. Embedded within enigmatic 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.
Paradise; John Prine. The world just lost one of its greatest songwriters, John Prine, who died from COVID-19. In “Paradise”, John chronicles the intertwined losses of Appalachia’s communities and its environment to the liquidation of its forest and mineral resources:
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.
Road Trippin’; Red Hot Chili Peppers. 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.”
California Stars; Wilco These words — written by Woody Guthrie — drifted through my head the first night I slept out 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 Last Resort; The Eagles. 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 wilderness — which 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.
Society; Eddie Vedder. From the soundtrack of “Into The Wild,” this is a near-perfect marriage of words, 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 real relationships: “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.”
My City Was Gone; The Pretenders. Only Chrissie Hynde could make a song about land-use and zoning sound so nasty — and catchy. Her voice drips with loss and disgust for a “government that had no pride” that allowed her city’s downtown to be hollowed out even as the suburbs sprawled inexorably outward: “the farms of Ohio, had been replaced by shopping malls…” A quarter century later, the Pretenders revisited 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.”
Big Yellow Taxi; Joni Mitchell. 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.”
Nothing But Flowers; Talking Heads. 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 in 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 protagonist 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 the monotony of a 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 my employer’s mission statement onto cheeky phrases backed by irresistibly catchy Afro-pop guitar riffs and rhythms? Whatever it is, it works.
Mercy, Mercy Me (the Ecology); Marvin Gaye. In this classic from the era of the first Earth Day, Marvin prays for both spiritual and environmental renewal.
This Land is Your Land; Bruce Springsteen. On his live album, Springsteen introduces this Woody Guthrie song as “just about one of the most beautiful songs ever written.” His simple but impassioned rendition makes the case that people and landscape sustain each other. Hearing the crowd roar makes me long for a time when we can again gather together, to celebrate our shared heritage of music and nature.
Speak out; Rising Appalachia (featuring Ani DiFranco). Rising Appalachia and Ani DiFranco chronicle many injustices, but the loss of nature is woven throughout in a series of questions: “What have you done to this beautiful Kingdom?…Where are your wilds? Where is your rough edge? Don’t tell me you’ve traded it for comfort and privilege.” Then they propose a solution: like Greta Thunberg and other kids my age, we have to “step up, speak out, show up, be loud.”
Canyon Moon; Harry Styles. With every verse ending in “I keep thinking back to a time under the Canyon Moon,” Harry Styles seems to be describing this natural scene as a refuge from the bustling activity of everyday life (and a reprise of the feel of “California Stars” from my Dad’s list). And isn’t that exactly what nature is? Isn’t that worth fighting for?
Furr; Blitzen Trapper. For me, this song is the greatest anthem for the wilderness out there. It is the song I would belt out as I dashed through the woods with the unabashed freedom that only children get to enjoy. It is the first song I ever truly loved. Yet at the song’s end, when the protagonist has left his life with the wolves to settle down and start a family, I was always struck with this nostalgic feeling that the story shouldn’t have ended there: “now my fur has turned to skin and I’ve been quickly ushered in to a world that I confess I do not know. Still I dream of running careless through the snow…” And growing up, those words continue to hit me. Because I fear my generation has lost touch with nature — the friends with whom I used to run through the trees would now rather stay inside. I don’t like that the song concedes to domesticity, abandoning a wild and free childhood, and I will always dream of running careless through the snow.
Would That I; Hozier. In Hozier’s incredibly poetic fashion, he subtly describes deforestation…perhaps even comparing it to a dying relationship?… it’s all in the interpretation. In any case, these beautiful lyrics strike a melancholy chord that begs for change:
True that love in withdrawal was the weeping of me
That the sound of the saw must be known by the tree
Each love I could lose I was never the same
Watch its still living roots be consumed by the flame
Dear Winter; AJR. Now I must admit — this song is not really about climate change but if I may take some artistic license here to work in a song from my favorite band, I think it’ll do just fine. For one, the song speaks to uncertainty about the future. And no matter what that uncertainty is specifically in reference to, I think a lot of us can relate to the sorrow that accompanies a bright future that is perhaps out of reach. And what’s more, the singer longs for a hypothetical child named Winter. How fitting for the uncertain future of the song to share a name with the season that may just disappear in the face of climate change?
New Woman’s World; The Avett Brothers. In this humble track, men finally concede that they are the inferior sex! But all jokes and humility (or lack thereof) aside, the lyrics offer up some sad realities that are worth our attention. One such example comes in the first verse where the brothers flippantly denounce mankind’s greed: “we cared about clean air but there was money to be made. And breathing’s nice but it don’t compare with getting paid.” So maybe we women can let the men help out a bit as we work to restore “what’s left of the world.”
Human (Acoustic); Jon Bellion. In this acoustic version, Jon Bellion laments the helplessness of feeling merely human and making all the mistakes known all too well to our kind. And while I don’t believe he specifically mentions the over-use of fossil fuels or the greediness of consumerism, I can’t help but relate to the general feeling of being powerlessly human and unable to correct some fatal errors.
Pompeii; Bastille. This song is about a natural disaster…albeit one not influenced by climate change… but the doomsday-sounding lyrics seem appropriate nonetheless. Made for the 2014 action movie Pompeii, the song describes “walls..tumbling down in the city that we loved” and “grey clouds rolling over the hills bringing darkness from above” — clearly referencing the destruction in the midst of a devastating volcanic explosion. These words easily conjure up images, not of molten rock or crumbling houses, but of a sky growing grey from air pollution and the metaphorical tumbling of a home that we loved. And when the line “oh where do we begin, the rubble or our sins?” starts to repeat towards the end, I am convinced Bastille wrote it for some deeper meaning.
People; The 1975. I need some sort of disclaimer before this one because it is…intense…to say the least. Indeed, the lyrics don’t lack urgency or blunt honesty as the lead singer, Matthew Healy, screams out “we are appalling and we need to stop just watching sh** in bed. And I know it sounds boring and we like things that are funny but we need to get this in our f***ing heads”. So yeah, it’s intense. But I like to listen to this song while I run because it is an incredibly impassioned cry for change that gets my blood pumping and makes me eager to work harder- so maybe it’s exactly what we all need to hear.
Risk It; Nahko Bear and Medicine for the People. What begins sounding deceptively like a drug trip goes on to profess some very rational ideas about the health of the earth, creating an interesting juxtaposition within a very catchy song. From the description of some otherworldly adventure involving shape-shifting, the song quickly transitions to these simple lyrics: “I dreamed…what it would be like to always have clean water. And if you left the trees standing and they filtered the air and we breathed it in deeply…”. And what a fine dream to have, Nahko, fine indeed.
This Land is Your Land; Phosphorescent. I agree with my dad that this is the single best song to end the playlist. It is a beautiful cover of a beautiful song — recorded thirty years after Springsteen’s version on my Dad’s list — and one that transcends time and connects generations.