Thursday, July 19, 2012

Six Great Environmental Protest Songs

Do you hear that sound? That's the silence of a environmental movement without a soundtrack. If there are songs about the present biodiversity crisis, I can't think of any. So let's kick it up a notch and celebrate some great environmental songs of the past, whether written as protest songs or as cultural criticism.

1. Bob Dylan -- Masters of War
Unfortunately, there's no Bob Dylan on Youtube, so here's Pearl Jam live from the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary.

Written in 1962-63 and released on the album The Freewheeling, Masters of War is a broke new ground for Dylan, who said "I've never written anything like that before. I don't sing songs which hope people will die, but I couldn't help it with this one. The song is a sort of striking out... a feeling of what can you do? He later said he wrote it in response to Eisenhower's 1961 speech warning about the military-industrial complex. 

The song has been covered dozens of times, including versions by Cher and Jose Feliciano. Be sure to check out the versions by The Staple Singers and Odetta, an American folk singer who recorded an entire album of Bob Dylan covers in 1965, including this chilling rendition of the song.  

You can find out why it's difficult to push through legislation for education, health care, social or environmental programs when you look at the US military budget

2. Joni Mitchell -- Big Yellow Taxi

Written and first performed in 1970, Big Yellow Taxi is classic Joni Mitchell. With references to DDT and a refrain of "You don't know what you've got till it's gone," Mitchell wrote the song on her first trip to Hawaii when she looked out the window of her hotel and saw mountains in the distance, but then below her, a parking lot as far as she could see. Listen for the lines: They took all the trees/ And put them in a tree museum
Then they charged the people/ A dollar and a half just to see 'em. 

You can also hear a recent version by Counting Crows

3. Bruce Cockburn -- If a Tree Falls

This song could be called Deforestation 101. If a Tree Falls appeared on Cockburn's 1989 album Big Circumstance and here he gives a lesson on the value, and destruction, of the rainforests. Asked in 2010 if anything had changed, he said, "It shifts all the time. When I wrote that song they were cutting down the Amazon rain forest to put in cattle. But that didn’t work out, and the next thing you know they’re planting soybeans. But they’re still cutting down the forests, and they’re still displacing the natives. Corn for the biodiesel trade, that’s the new big thing. You can’t win. You create all this awareness about one aspect of the problem, but as soon as you think you have a foot on top of that, it squeezes out from under and morphs into something else."

Find lyrics for the song here.

4. World Party -- Ship of Fools

Karl Wallinger, formerly of the Waterboys, put this song on his debut album with World Party, Private Revolution. Walllinger was the only member of the band, played all the instruments and on this and later albums he showed his skills at writing catchy pop tunes that also featured great lyrics. Save me, save me from tomorrow, I don't want to sail with this ship of fools. As if we're all in a great big ship driven by avarice and greed. 

5. Johnny Cash -- Don't Go Near the Water

Classic Cash! From the 1974 album Ragged Old Flag, Don't go Near the Water is a tale of once-clean waters, that flows down from hills "cold clear and blue" until it gets to the cities where it turns a dirty grey. There was a time you could eat the fish out of rivers without worry, a time no one had heard of acid rain. We violated nature and our a children have to pay the penalty.

6. Louis Armstrong -- What a Wonderful World -- Live Version

Written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss, Armstrong recorded it in 1968, though the song was first offered to Tony Bennett, who turned it down. The head of ABC records didn't like it and so he didn't promote it, causing only 1000 records to be sold in the US, while the song became a number one hit in the UK. It's now a jazz standard. Here's the usual version with Armstrong's own introduction, and here's a version by Katie Melua. What a Wonderful World is a love song, a reminder that this wonderful world is what we're fighting for.

What about you? What are your favorite environmental songs? What do we have from the 1990's and 2000's? Leave your faves in the comments below.


  1. Damn, I didn't know the connection between the Waterboys and World Party.

  2. Yeah, he's a pretty incredible story -- was out of the scene for five years because he was left speechless after an aneurysm (at least it didn't kill him). But he rehabilitated himself in 2006 and has been recording again. He seems to like playing SXSW!

  3. Try Full Steam, performed by Annie Lennox and David Gray.

    Dave Gardner
    Director of the documentary
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

    1. That's a great one, Dave, thanks for posting. I'll put it on the next list.

  4. How about Pete Seeger singing......" We Shall Overcome " ?He has some others too that I just can't think of at this moment.

    1. Thanks for posting, Don, I didn't know where to start with Pete Seeger and that song looks like a good place. His songs need a revival!

  5. Thanks for your great article! A recent addition to this eco-bunch would be "Habeas Corpus/Home at Bay" by Univer Soul.


  6. my name is Andrew Watson and aj is my dad