The importance of the diversity of our ecology, and of environmental sustainability, are constant watchwords these days and every news bulletin seems to bring another warning that we need to take better care of this planet or pay the consequences. When it comes to the environment and, in particular, the effects of climate change, it’s increasingly clear that we’re all drinking in the Last Chance Saloon! As something of a tree-hugger myself, I thought it was time we took a look at what some of our Americana artists have to say on the matter.
Given that Americana music has its roots in rural communities, it’s not surprising to find that the musicians are an environmentally aware bunch and I had a lot of material to choose from. I’m sure I’ve missed some great tracks but, hopefully, the ones I’ve selected won’t disappoint.
We’re starting this walk in the wilderness with one of the founding fathers of the genre – the great Woody Guthrie.
Woody Guthrie: ‘Dusty Old Dust’ (1940)
In 1940 Woody Guthrie recorded what was his debut album and would also be the most successful record of his entire career, the concept album ‘Dust Bowl Ballads’, a series of songs that chronicle the 1930s Dust Bowl and associated Great Depression. The Dust Bowl was one of the great ecological disasters of the 20th century. The cause was a combination of more extreme weather conditions (and we now know what causes that!) and poor farming techniques designed for short term profit. The Great Plains, the vast expanse of flat grassland located in the heart of North America, had lost much of its acreage to farmland. Poor understanding of plains ecology meant that the topsoil had been subjected to extensive deep ploughing in order to replace native, deep-rooted grasses with cereal crops that had much shallower and finer root systems. The area receives comparatively little rainfall over the course of a year anyway and intensive farming methods gradually turned the fine soil to dust. Drought further compounded the problem – and then the winds came. The resulting dust storms – the “black blizzards” or “black rollers” as they were known, stripped the soil from the land, destroying and burying farms and displacing thousands of people.
Guthrie was devastated by what he witnessed when visiting the area and, though many of the songs on the album have a light, almost comic tone, they tap into the way that residents of the region would try to make light of what were truly disastrous circumstances for them. The lucky ones would drag themselves to California to become farm labourers at pittance wages; many would commit suicide, with their means of making a living lost and all hope gone; others would succumb to “dust pneumonia” as the clouds of fine soil choked up their lungs – “A dust storm hit, an’ it hit like thunder/ It dusted us over, an’ it covered us under/ Blocked out the traffic an’ blocked out the sun/ Straight for home all the people did run/ Singin’ So long, it’s been good to know yuh/ So long, it’s been good to know yuh/ So long, it’s been good to know yuh/ This dusty old dust is a-gettin’ my home/ And I got to be driftin’ along”.
Malvina Reynolds – ‘What Have They Done to the Rain’ (1962)
Simply one of the best songs about environmental damage ever written. This was composed by Malvina Reynolds in 1962 and written specifically as part of a campaign against nuclear testing and the radioactive fallout it was generating, creating rain that was particularly destructive. Reynolds was a folk singer who was also heavily involved in political activism; the daughter of Jewish socialist migrants to the US, she became a follower of Unitarian Universalism, a liberal religious movement that has no creed but is focused on the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”. Among other songs she also wrote “Little Boxes”, made famous by Pete Seeger, a song that lamented the spread of small, characterless housing in the San Francisco Bay area.
Joan Baez, who was the first to cover ‘What Have They Done to the Rain’, described it as the “gentlest” of protest songs. While it’s true that the song sounds a little ordinary and lacking impact when Reynolds sang it, Baez applying her particularly clear soprano voice to the lyrics give them a yearning quality that made audiences sit up and take notice. Many other artists have had hits with the song over the years – The Searchers, Marianne Faithful, Melanie – but Baez version is the one that seems to best define the song, lamenting a pointless destruction of the natural world.
Joni Mitchell – ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ (1970)
Perhaps one of the best known, relatively early songs protesting endless urban development in the name of progress – “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone/ They paved paradise, put up a parking lot“.
Mitchell explained, in a 1996 interview, her inspiration for the song – “I wrote ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ on my first trip to Hawaii. I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart… this blight on paradise. That’s when I sat down and wrote the song.”
John Prine – ‘Paradise’ (1971)
We all know what a fine writer John Prine was, and his death earlier this year, a victim of Covid-19, is particularly felt in the Americana community. He was on particularly good form with this song about the environmental damages of strip mining and the destruction it could bring to rural communities – “Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel/And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land/Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken/Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.”
‘Paradise’ was also known as ‘Mr Peabody’s Coal Train’ and was about Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, where Prine’s parents had grown up – another small community destroyed in the endless quest for fossil fuels.
Alabama – ‘Pass it on Down’ (1990)
Alabama’s bass player, Teddy Gentry was, apparently, out fishing with his son, who asked him if he thought there’d still be fish to catch when he was grown up and went fishing with his sons. This was following a local government advisory to people in his region not to eat the fish they caught, because of their high mercury content, as a result of river pollution. This started the idea for the song and Gentry sat down with the band’s singer and rhythm guitar player, Randy Owen, along with co-writers Ronnie Rogers and Will Robinson, to pen this title track and lead single from Alabama’s 13th studio album, released in 1990.
The song’s approach is that we need to start caring about the planet to ensure we leave something for future generations. As the chorus says – “So let’s leave some blue up above us/ Let’s leave some green on the ground/ It’s only ours to borrow, let’s save some for tomorrow/ Leave it and pass it on down”. It’s not a new sentiment now but, thirty years ago it was a different matter. Climate change was being talked about but the Kyoto Protocol that secured commitments to reduce greenhouse gasses was still seven years away and even the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the forerunner of Kyoto, wasn’t put in place until 1992. If not ahead of its time the song was certainly of its time and something of a surprise from a band who had been plying their blend of traditional country and southern rock music since the end of the 60s, without ever showing any real interest in political matters. Alabama have been a hugely successful band over the years and, while this wasn’t one of their 33 number one country hits it did attain a very credible peak of number three on Billboard’s Hot Country charts in the year of its release.
John Anderson – ‘Seminole Wind’ (1992)
I didn’t know this song before I came across it while researching this article, but I was struck by the beautiful simplicity of it. The song uses just four chords and the same playing pattern for both the verse and the chorus but still manages to pull the listener in and make its point. Much of that is down to some fine dynamics, mostly provided by the fiddle playing of Joe Spivey and its interaction with the piano in the intro and with Anderson’s banjo playing throughout the song. A native Floridian, Anderson was writing about the land drainage and reclamation programme that has all but destroyed the delicate ecosystem of the Everglades and turned the region into the most critically endangered site in the U.S. Released as a single in 1992, from the album of the same name, ‘Seminole Wind’ scored a number two hit in the U.S. Country charts. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to have made much difference to the plight of the Everglades.
The Handsome Family – ‘Peace In The Valley Once Again’ (2001)
This song, from everyone’s favourite Alt-Country married couple, is something of a gem and celebrates nature’s ability to re-colonise even the most urbanised of areas if left alone. Laced with The Handsome Family’s trademark tongue in cheek humour and slightly gothic approach to narrative, it riffs on the original ‘Peace In The Valley (For Me)’, a spiritual written by Thomas A. Dorsey, “the father of gospel music” and covered by the likes of Jim Reeves, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Dorsey’s song waxes lyrical about an idealised, spiritual world based on biblical passages, “There the bear will be gentle, the wolf will be tame/ And the lion will lay down by the lamb” but for Brett and Rennie Sparks the real peace comes when humans are taken out of the equation and nature resumes control – “When they closed the last shopping mall/ Crickets sang in crumbling walls/ Termites ate through the doors/ And rabbits hopped along the floors/ The empty shelves swarmed with bees/ Cash machines sprouted weeds/ Lizards crawled the parking lot/ Swallows flew the empty shops/ And there was peace in the valley once again”. Amen to that.
Neil Young – ‘Be The Rain’ (2003)
My fellow writers at AUK will probably be a little bemused to see this artist’s name in an article written by me; I enjoy a certain notoriety around here for my lack of enthusiasm for someone who seems to be pretty much everyone else’s favourite Canadian! But while I don’t particularly enjoy Neil Young’s singing, I can’t fault his songwriting or his commitment to worthy causes, especially where the environment is concerned. Perhaps the more obvious choice from this artist would be ‘After The Gold Rush’, with its multi-layered themes and meanings and its chilling warning to “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s” (subsequently updated to “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 21st Century” for live performances) but there’s something about ‘Be The Rain’ that I find more compelling. Taken from his album, ‘Greendale’, a concept album that deals with the issues of corruption, environmental damage and media manipulation, there’s a strong agit-prop feel to ‘Be The Rain’, with its megaphone enhanced call and response lyrics and direct attack on Big Oil – “Don’t care what the governments say/ they’re all bought and paid for anyway/ Save the planet for another day/ hey big oil, what do you say?”
Young is a committed environmental activist and has publicly criticised President Trump for his denial of climate-change science.
Melissa Etheridge – ‘I Need to Wake Up’ (2006)
At first glance, it’s hard to see this song as a clarion call in defence of the environment – but context is everything and, when you realise that this is the theme song from former US Vice President Al Gore’s documentary, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, then the weight of expectation is considerable. While the lyrics aren’t particularly clever, the song is more about a general need to be aware of what’s happening rather than containing any specific information, there is an anthemic quality that, when linked with images from the film, gives this song an incredibly powerful presence.
Melissa Etheridge won the 2007 Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Original Song for this, and deservedly so.
Dar Williams – ‘Go To The Woods’ (2012)
Dar Williams has been described as “one of America’s very best songwriters” (Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker) and, listening to her song ‘Go To The Woods’ it would be hard to disagree. The song celebrates the value of getting out and into nature, its benefits for mental well-being – “Out in the storybook land are many leagues of the wild/ Wise and uncontainable as a windy-haired child/ There are the youth truth movements and they’re springing from the ground/ Freak flag wavers and you cannot chop them down/ Hey, it’s the home of the brave, you’ll get the threat of the free/ Go to the woods and see.”
At the same time, Williams expresses her concern that our wild places are fast disappearing, that they’ll be lost unless we act to change the situation
She doesn’t just talk the talk – in her spare time she actively campaigns on behalf of environmental causes, with particular focus on getting children to engage with the natural world and promoting the growth of bee-friendly gardens via her Give Bees A Camp project, combining concerts with planting bee-friendly gardens for schoolchildren (pre-pandemic).
It’s good to see our Americana musicians taking our environmental issues seriously and doing their bit to raise awareness – something we could all contribute to!