Acoustic Guitar, Pixabay
Image by SplitShire from Pixabay

Songs of the Earth: Woody Guthrie to Neil Young

How American folk songs of the Earth, from Woody Guthrie to Neil Young, tilled the soil for the rise of ‘Green Pop’.

German Composer Gustav Mahler gave us the phrase ‘The Song of the Earth’: in 1908-9, he composed Das Lied von der Erde, a song sequence in praise of the natural world. The Mahler Foundation offers this useful summary: ‘Gustav Mahler believed that nature held the key to the profundity of life. … As he once summed it up: “One will be able to give me the title: Singer of Nature”: an artist tapping into sacred life for inspiration and insight.’ The foundation proposes that it would be an appropriate way of demonstrating an appreciation of the work to confront ‘the challenges [that] we have imposed on nature and that we must all now address – climate change, plastic waste, habitat destruction…’

It’s good to see admirers of Mahler being inspired by one of his greatest works to address the challenge of the current state of our environment. It’s also good to witness the current flourishing of what we might call Green Pop – though others may prefer Eco-Pop, Eco-Rock, etc.. Striking examples include “Sirens” by Melissa Marchese, “Atlantic” by the Weather Station, “How Far I’ll Go” by Alessia Cara, “Feels Like Summer” by Childish Gambino, “Walk With You” by Janette Kroll, and “Another World” by Antony and the Johnsons. Nor should we overlook “Love Song to the Earth”, jointly penned in 2015 by several celebrated songwriters – Natasha Bedingfield, Sean Paul, Toby Gad, John Shanks – and performed collectively by various artists.

We could, of course, trace ‘Green Pop’ back through eras and cultures, but here I’m concentrating on the importance of folk music in the post-war years. The rise of environmental awareness among folksingers was particularly significant because it went hand in hand with the growing impact of the science of ecology. 

There was a folk revival in the US in the 1950s, led by groups such as the Weavers and the Kingston Trio, but ‘folk’ didn’t become generally identified with ‘protest’ until the 1960s: protest against not only racial oppression and the Vietnam War, but also against the damage being done to the natural world. That said, Woody Guthrie provided a model for this kind of music in the 1940s. 

Woody Guthrie – ‘Pastures of Plenty’ (1941)

With “Pastures of Plenty” (1941), Guthrie addresses one of the major environmental disasters to emerge in the 1930s: the Dust Bowl. Caused by a policy of aggressive exploitation of the land, it meant huge numbers of people had to escape the drought and dust storms that blighted several states, most notably Oklahoma. These ‘Dust Bowl migrants’ travelled westwards to California for work. Guthrie sings in sympathy and solidarity with these ‘Okies’.  The fate of the working class is seen as inseparable from the fate of the land itself.  

Woody Guthrie – ‘This Land Is Your Land’ (1940)

“This Land Is Your Land” (1940) is Guthrie’s reply to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”, first written in 1918 as an inspiration to a military campaign, then revised by Berlin in 1938 as an expression of pure patriotism: ‘’While the storm clouds gather far across the sea / Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free. / Let us all be grateful that we are far from there / As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer. / God bless America, land that I love …’

Guthrie was unhappy with this mood of pious self-satisfaction, so wrote his song as an act of defiance. Above all, “This Land Is Your Land” is a reminder to the political establishment that the glorious continent of North America belongs primarily to the working people of the nation, not those with wealth and power. 

It’s worth adding that Guthrie wrote some further verses to this song, but he was not allowed to include them in the official recording. They make explicit what is implicit in the song we’ve come to know:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing
That side was made for you and me

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people
By the relief office I seen my people
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me
As I go walking that freedom highway
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me

The issues of land ownership and responsibility for the land are inseparable from the issues of class and wealth. 

There is an interesting tension in Guthrie’s body of work. On the one hand, he has a communist faith in the benefits of industrial progress – provided that it is the working class that has control over the means of production. On the other hand, he has a residual affection for the agrarian way of life, and he greatly admires those whose livelihood depends on the work they do on the land. 

An objection that might be made to this particular song is that when he declares that this land is ‘your land’, he is obviously addressing the working class and the farming community rather than the Native Americans to whom the land originally belonged (not that they thought in those terms). That said, we should still credit Guthrie with opening up the question of our reliance on the earth and stressing the importance of sharing the benefits and the beauty of the earth with all people, rich or poor.  

Chris Webby – “Our Planet” (2019)

Recently, I came across a song by Chris Webby called “Our Planet” from his album, Wednesday after Next (2019). It presents us with a disturbing catalogue of the ecological disasters for which modern humanity is responsible. Significantly, the lyrics conclude by incorporating those of “This Land Is Your Land”. Those folk roots are still very much alive.

1960s: The Key Decade

Joan Baez – “What Have They Done to the Rain” (1962)

Malvina Reynolds wrote “What Have They Done to the Rain” as a rallying cry for those protesting against nuclear testing. Joan Baez sings it on her album, Joan Baez in Concert in 1962. It had become clear by this time that the practice of detonating nuclear weapons above ground was rendering the skies radioactive – with particles falling to the ground or travelling into the upper atmosphere. Rainfall was inevitably affected by this fallout. Both the earth and humanity were thereby put at risk. 

Phil Ochs – “The Power and the Glory” (1964)

“The Power and the Glory” appeared on Phil Och’s album All the News That’s’ Fit to Sing. Though he would later become most famous for his generalised lament about the way circumstances can affect one’s fate with “There But for Fortune”, with “The Power and the Glory” he took a documentary approach to his songwriting. This album has been described as a work of ‘proletarian realism’. Many songs are about the conditions of the working class in capitalist America. “The Power and the Glory” takes the well-known phrase from the Lord’s Prayer and applies it to both the workers and the natural world. In a way, this “The Power and the Glory” echoes Guthrie’s anthem, “This Land Is Your Land”.

Malvina Reynolds – “Cement Octopus” (1964)

Malvina Reynolds here protests against the proposed construction of a freeway through Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. However, her stance is by no means simplistic: she shows her awareness of the possibility that cancelling such massive projects might result in unemployment. Her solution is to advocate the essential work of creating new parks and planting more trees – vital for the welfare of both nature and humanity.  Her humour is persuasive, while her anger is clear. The campaign to save the park succeeded.

Bob Dylan – “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” (1963)  

Bob Dylan was the first in the folk community of the early 1960s to gain an audience within the population that would normally listen to straight pop music. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, based on the traditional folksong “Lord Randal”, had a huge impact. The ‘rain’ was widely interpreted as representing nuclear fallout, as in Malvina Reynold’’s song’s “What Have They Done to the Rain”, so it may fairly be categorised as an environmental song. True, Dylan himself, in a subsequent interview, insisted that he hadn’t intended for any lines in the song to be read literally. Still, this is an interesting case of a song acquiring significance beyond its original meaning – and becoming all the more interesting. 

Another song of this period that merits attention is “Lay Down Your Weary Tune”, composed in 1963 but only released on Dylan’s Biograph album in 1985. However, it featured in many of the concerts Dylan gave in the early to mid-’60s, it was widely circulated in bootleg releases, and in 1965 it was recorded by the popular folk-rock group the Byrds. 

It’s a pantheistic celebration of nature as a totality that human beings hear as divine music: that is, the absolute ‘song of the earth’, which ‘No voice can hope to hum’. Human aims and ambitions are subordinate to nature’s eternal rhythm; your ‘weary tune’ cannot hope to match its rich symphony. The paradox is, of course, that this song is offered as doing exactly that, even as it preaches humility in the face of nature’s overwhelming power. While Dylan’s music of the late ’60s and early ’70s will be informed by a pastoral vision of the countryside as a welcome retreat from city life, it is perhaps “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” that is the nearest thing to a green statement in his body of work.  

Tom Paxton – “Whose Garden Was This?” (1969)

Tom Paxton was a well-established folksinger when he decided to put his talent to ecological use. Written for publicising an upcoming event of momentous importance, namely ‘Earth Day’ (see below), the song’s message is suitably dramatic: suppose the beautiful world we’ve taken for granted all these years is totally obliterated. How could one begin to understand the beauty of the Earth? The desperation in the series of questions put by someone we imagine to be living after the catastrophe is compelling.

Key Album: God Bless the Grass

Loyal disciple of Woody Guthrie in his early days, founder of the Weavers folk group in the late 1940s, member of the Communist Party in the 1950s and 60s, campaigner for civil rights in the 60s, and a much-travelled solo performer: Pete Seeger was already well known by the time he released the album God Bless the Grass in 1966. This signified a change of direction for him: his use of music to encourage listeners’ commitment to various environmental causes, which would remain urgently important for him throughout his long life. On the album, Seeger sings a selection of other people’s ‘green’ songs together with his own. 

Pete Seeger – ‘God Bless The Grass’ (1966)

Seeger takes the title of his album from this song by Malvina Reynolds, which he covers here along with “Cement Octopus”. He also opens God Bless the Grass with his version of Phil Och’s “The Power and the Glory”.

The title “God Bless the Grass” suggests a hymn written for children, and indeed there is a deceptively simple lyric here. God is on the side of the grass; construction companies that ignore the rights of nature are – implicitly – on the side of the devil. By paralleling the way grass eventually manages to grow through concrete with the way truth has a way of making itself known, this is a rallying cry for defenders of both.

Pete Seeger – “The People Are Scratching” (1966)

A book that had a huge impact on Seeger and other environmental activists by this time was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). She revealed how pesticides systematically damaged land, vegetation, air, water and, inevitably, human beings. In other words, she revealed the complexity of the ecological chain. Seeger’s “The People Are Scratching” traces a similar process. It confirms Carson’s claim about the way pollution permeates the whole of nature.

Pete Seeger – “My Dirty Stream” (1966)

“My Dirty Stream” is one of several songs by Seeger which had a practical and powerful impact on environmentalism. It heralded the beginning of the campaign that Seeger would lead for many years. Essentially, it is a challenge to the forces of industrialism. It traces how the Hudson River, near where Seeger himself now lived, had been polluted and littered. “My Dirty Stream” is not informed by naïve nostalgia, however: Seeger is definitely looking forward. He is determined that the river will ‘once again become clear’. 

Seeger had by this time already started planning to build a 106-foot sloop to be called Clearwater, which would attract visitors to the river, and would be the focus of the campaign. Thanks to his tireless devotion to the cause, the river would be returned to health, and Clearwater would continue to provide the focus for a long-term educational programme.

Considering the album as a whole, it seems appropriate to summarise Seeger’s ecological vision as ‘radical pastoral utopian’. He loved the land, believed that it should be protected and that everyone had a right to access and appreciate it. He believed in a green future, and he made a huge contribution to making it possible. 

1970: The Turning Point 

Earth Day (1970) was a hugely significant event and is still a turning point for the environmental movement: the message had begun to get across to many US citizens. 

Earth Day inspired 20 million Americans — at the time, 10% of the total population of the United States — to take to the streets, parks and auditoriums to demonstrate against the impacts of 150 years of industrial development which had left a growing legacy of serious human health impacts. … Groups that had been fighting individually against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness and the extinction of wildlife united on Earth Day around these shared common values.

It was only a matter of months after Earth Day that the Greenpeace organisation was founded in 1971. To help the launch and raise much-needed funds, the founders decided to stage a concert. Phil Ochs, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor performed for free. Rex Wyler of Greenpeace recalled, ‘The concert was a sell-out, the biggest counter-culture event of the year.’ Sixteen thousand people attended, and most became members of the movement.

1970 saw the release of three songs of environmental importance. Each songwriter – Don Maclean, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young – was widely regarded as a folk musician at the time. At the same time, they were major figures in the pop scene generally.

Don Maclean – “Tapestry” (1970)

It may surprise many people to learn that Don Maclean, known chiefly for his songs “American Pie” and “Vincent”, was at the time he composed this song a member of the Clearwater team. Nowadays, he is not really known as an environmentalist, yet the titular song of this album is a powerful exposition of the web of life, a challenge to all those who would seek to override it, and a lament over the degradation of the natural world. It is remarkable how he manages to say so much within the scope of a three-and-a-half-minute song.

Joni Mitchell – “Big Yellow Taxi” (1970)

Just because “Big Yellow Taxi” crops up in nearly all the ‘best environmental songs’ lists is no reason to ignore it here. It remains a powerful indictment of how humans arrogantly mistreat the natural world – often for the most trivial reasons. 

Essentially, “Big Yellow Taxi” is a lament over an act of ecological vandalism: ‘They paved paradise: / Put up a parking lot, / With a pink hotel, a boutique, / And a swinging hot spot.’ The irony by which a forest can be destroyed, only for a ‘tree museum’ to be opened for the paying public to see what was once there, remains a powerful indictment of the ecological illiteracy of so much bureaucracy and business today. Nor does Mitchell overlook agriculture: she challenges the use of pesticides, in concurrence with the pioneering work of Carson.

The title refers to the vehicle that ‘took away my old man’, thus suggesting a parallel between the departure of a loved person and the destruction of a loved landscape. It’s a homely touch, perhaps rendering the wider argument more personal and domestic. 

Neil Young – “After the Goldrush” (1970)

The lyrics of “After the Goldrush” present a curious narrative. It is probably Neil Young’s most cryptic composition. The title suggests that it takes place in mid-19th century America, focussing on the disappointment felt by those who sought quick wealth. However, the singer’s dream drifts from a jousting event in medieval England to contemporary warfare, possibly involving nuclear weapons, and so to a science fiction scenario in which the destruction of Mother Nature necessitates the transfer of its ‘seed’ to a ‘new home in the sun’. We are not sure whether the ‘chosen ones’ are the elite, able to escape the consequences of the very state that they have brought about, or whether they are heroic figures trying to save nature. Does the singer remain in ‘a burned-out basement’, waiting for orders that will never come?

Whatever we decide about the meaning of “After the Goldrush”, it is certainly the song’s refrain that hit home: ‘Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s’. That this message continues to matter to Young is indicated by the fact that in more recent performances, he changes ‘1970s’ to ‘21st century’.  

Neil Young: Back to the Land

Having started as a folksinger, Neil Young went on to work in various musical forms: country, country rock, hard rock, and blues – even becoming hailed as the godfather of grunge. But what matters is that his vision, his concern, and his project have always come back to the question of the relationship between humanity and the earth – of how we can remain true to the land. “After the Goldrush” set the scene for this project: significantly, whenever he has performed that song since its release, he has been careful to update the refrain: ‘Look at mother nature on the run in the 1970s … 20th century  … 21st century’.

“Are There Any More Real Cowboys?” (1985)

In 1985 at the Live Aid global concert, Dylan made a request on stage before he sang: he asked that some of the money being donated for African famine relief might be set aside for those American farmers struggling with poverty and debt. Some commentators would later complain that his request had been in bad taste. However, it was appropriate by way of an introduction to his performance of “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”, an early song of his about a farmer who kills himself and his family rather than starve to death.

Young and Willie Nelson were listening carefully to Dylan’s request and immediately went about organising the Farm Aid festival, which ran later that year and which has run annually ever since. Young had already been thinking along these lines, as is evident on his Old Ways album, released in the same year as Live Aid and Farm Aid. We can sense from this album that Young was already preoccupied with the plight of rural America.

Small independent farmers were being pushed aside by agribusiness, and many of those who lived and worked close to the land were finding it impossible to survive. Also threatened were those employed to look after cattle: a significant song on the album is “Are There Any More Real Cowboys?” Careless of any risk of appearing ‘uncool’, Young affirms his solidarity with ‘country families / Still working hand in hand / Trying hard to stay together / And make a stand…’

Mother Earth” (1990; 2016)

To the casual listener, Young’s concerns in “Are There Any More Real Cowboys?” might seem irrelevant to the larger question of the natural environment. But it is precisely this rural nostalgia that has inspired him to take on the forces destroying the land and the welfare of those who see themselves as belonging to it. He understands that until we remember that the natural world is our home we will continue to mistreat it. He has, in short, an ecological vision – the word ‘ecology’ comes, after all, from the Greek term oikos (home). 

We know that in many ancient cultures, nature was personified as female, and we still refer today to Mother Earth. On Young’s album Ragged Glory (1990), he includes a song simply called “Oh Mother Earth”. This is perhaps the central statement of all his work. Significantly, he recorded it again for the starkly titled album Earth (2016). This later version has a hymnal sound matching its hymnal lyric: powerfully appropriate for the spiritual stance Young is taking.

“Be the Rain”, from Greendale (2003)

It might be asked why Young has kept reaffirming his worship of the earth when there are so many issues that need addressing in our world. That is precisely his point, however, as is made clear in his musical film Greendale. A major theme it addresses is the destructive effect of a whole series of forces: the large corporations, the mass media, the corrupt government (the president at this time being George W. Bush), ‘big oil’, and of course, agribusiness. 

The story concerns a fictitious town in northern California and focuses on the Green family, headed by ‘Grandpa Green’, who represents both traditional agrarian America and residual countercultural values. His granddaughter ‘Sun’ is the main protagonist. She is an environmental activist who has come to understand the complex forces which are destroying the planet. 

Another significant character is ‘The Devil’, who seeks to destroy all the Green family stands for. The film’s climax comes with the song “Be the Rain”, which calls on us all to resist the forces of destruction and identify ourselves with the forces of nature. Young subsequently undertook a Greendale tour, with the performance of this song involving the stage being occupied by a whole troupe of dancers and ‘Sun’ declaiming through a megaphone. 

“Green Is Blue” (2019)

As the years have passed, Young’s environmental message has become increasingly urgent. His dedication to the cause is noteworthy. The album Colorado (2019) includes the song “Green Is Blue”. Where “Be the Rain” deploys hard rock to make its point, this song shows his meditative side, quietly acknowledging the failures rather than the successes of the green campaign. Where “Be the Rain” is defiant, “Green Is Blue” is regretful. Given how many chances we have had to reverse the drive of destruction, it is fitting that a song about failing to act must become an act in itself.

“Who’s Gonna Stand Up (For the Earth)?”  (2014)

As I write, this is the ecological song of Young’s that is probably the most widely known. Featured on the album Storytone (2014), and also on his tour of that year, it has been described as ‘an environmental activism anthem’. Certainly, Young used it in support of Farm Aid and the People’s Climate March of that year.

“Who’s Gonna Stand Up (For the Earth)?” was inspired by the documentary film Under the Influence (Terry Bennett and Sam Oliver, 2022), which exposes the power of corporate money in the USA, and the detrimental impact it has on the natural world. The film outlines what citizens can do to restore democracy and reverse environmental destruction. 

Young has recorded three different versions of the song: the first is live with his band Crazy Horse, the second is solo acoustic, and the third is with an orchestra. This last version is probably the one that has had the most impact, and which must surely stand as his most memorable performance ever. As he has written on his website:

With over sixty of the music industry’s finest musicians and a thirty-voice choir, this epic version resonates with a sound that has never been heard on a protest song before.

– Neil Young

So keen is he on having his song heard and on promoting his cause that he makes an unusual offer, but it is entirely consistent with the spirit of the song:

I’m giving you permission to please use this music in videos, clips and communications, or in any way you see fit during this critical time,” Young writes. “I hope this music can assist you in the important work we do to reach out for understanding and action in the world.

– Neil Young

We’ve been tracing the link between folk music and what I’m calling ‘Green Pop’, taking in the work of Guthrie, Seeger & co. If anyone could be said to have traced this journey within his career, it is surely Neil Young. I’ve known some people to dismiss his ecological work as fashionable and attitudinizing. Still, the evidence is that he has been entirely consistent in his resistance to agribusiness, to ‘big oil’, and to corporate influence.

We’ll end here not with a song but with two statements. Firstly, here’s a speech Young gave at the Farm Aid festival in 1997 against factory farming: 

Second, here’s a speech he gave at a meeting held in Calgary during his tour of his homeland Canada in 2014. The tour was in support of the Honour the Treaties movement, which defended the rights of First Nations People – the original inhabitants of the land, who had been treated with contempt by the government and who had never been recompensed for the loss of that land to the settlers. Young drew attention to the environmental impact on their community:   

From Woody Guthrie to Neil Young, we can trace a serious and consistent commitment to the most important cause of our era. We are still learning from the songwriters discussed; whatever form “Green Pop” might take, the legacy of those folk roots will endure.