A Favorite Earth Song List — What Are Yours?

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Published on April 22nd, 2010  |  Discuss This Article  

From the Redwood Forest...

Cool Green Science readers responded to my recent post about my top 10 river songs with an impressive range of their own favorites. For Earth Day, I’m posting a list of my top songs that evoke environmental awareness, protest or celebration — and asking you once again to tell us about your favorites in the comments below.

Reviewing the choices, it strikes me that it can be difficult to pull off an “environmental song” without devolving into preachiness (Exhibit A: “Death of Mother Nature Suite” by 70s prog-folk-rock group Kansas).  So, for the most part, I chose songs that work as songs and that successfully walk the line between sincere and sanctimonious.

My list contains two basic types of songs — those that chronicle environmental ravages and/or aim to inspire awareness, action etc.; and those that simply celebrate the beauty, wonder and regenerative capacity of nature.

Johnny Cash: Don’t Go Near the Water. 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.

Neil Young: After the Gold Rush. Embedded within elliptical 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.

Various Artists: Damn, Where Did My Appalachia Go? The intertwined decline of Appalachia’s communities and environment practically constitutes its own genre whose standard is John Prine’s “Paradise”: “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.”  This song gets bonus points for its reference to the first river where The Nature Conservancy and the Corps of Engineers collaborated to improve flows below a dam.  The Cowboy Junkies’ eulogy for a dying Appalachian town, “Last Spike”, mournfully observes that once a community has been stripped of its natural resource base —“I’ve watched the flat cars take away our timber/I’ve watched the coal cars steal our rock”— it fades, slowly and sadly, into oblivion.

Red Hot Chili Peppers: Road Trippin’. 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.”

Wilco: California Stars. These words — written by Woody Guthrie — drifted through my head as I first fell asleep 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 Eagles: The Last Resort. 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 wildness — that 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.

Joni Mitchell: Big Yellow Taxi. 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.”

Talking Heads: (Nothing But) Flowers. 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 with 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 singer 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 a monotonous 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 The Nature Conservancy’s mission statement onto cheeky phrases backed by irresistibly catchy Afro-pop guitar riffs and rhythms? Whatever it is, it works.

...to the Gulf Stream waters...

Eddie Vedder: Society. From the soundtrack of “Into The Wild,” this is a near-perfect marriage of message, 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 deeper connections with nature and each other: “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.”

The Pretenders: My City Was Gone. Only Chrissie Hynde could make a song about land use and zoning sound so nasty — and catchy. Her voice drips with sarcasm and disgust for a “government that had no pride” that allowed her city’s downtown to be hollowed out, filled with nothing but desultory parking lots, even as the suburbs sprawled inexorably outward: “The farms of Ohio had been replaced by shopping malls, and muzak filled the air from Seneca to Cuyahoga Falls.”  The jarring juxtaposition of muzak — synonymous with soulless sterility — and Native American names reminds that that a culture’s health and vibrancy reflects that of its surrounding landscape, and that both suffer at the hands of homogeneous and careless development.  The Pretenders recently updated 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.”

Marvin Gaye: Mercy, Mercy Me (the Ecology). In this classic from the era of the first Earth Day, Marvin prays for both spiritual and environmental renewal.

Bruce Springsteen: This Land is Your Land. On his live album, Springsteen introduces this Woody Guthrie song as “just about one of the most beautiful song ever written.” His simple but impassioned rendition makes the case that people and landscape are symbionts that sustain each other. I wish the Conservancy would use this song in a TV or web commercial as a stirring reminder that, across all that may divide us, we can be bound together by the ties of a beautiful landscape, one that is worth saving and renewing.

Please add your own lists of essential songs for Earth Day in the comments below. Consider it a vote, so don’t worry about repeats; I’ll tabulate the results and post a list of the readers’ favorites.

(Image credits: Redwoods photo by Miguel Viera under Creative Commons license; alligator photo by Jeff Opperman/TNC.)

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Comments: A Favorite Earth Song List — What Are Yours?

  •  Comment from Ben

    Great list of Earth-friendly songs!
    Here’s one more that I believe deserves inclusion within the top 10 – Michael Jackson’s Earth Song! Happy Earth Day!

  •  Comment from Liz

    “Sacred Ground” by Red Thunder
    “Conviction of the Heart” by Kenny Loggins

  •  Comment from Dave

    “The Green Room” by Wayne Gratz – http://lala.com/z8nt It’s actually an instrumental but the birdsong & music really reminds me of a pond in the woods near my home when I was a kid.

  •  Comment from Chris Doffitt

    Mofro-Fireflies

    Mofro-Pray for rain

  •  Comment from Amy W

    How about Spirit: Nature’s Way circa 1978?

  •  Comment from Amy W

    I mean 1973.

  •  Comment from Melissa Soule

    Impressive list! You really caught some good ones (Talking Heads, Eddie Vedder & the Pretenders!). Liz beat me to mentioning my favorite, but I’ll second it: “Conviction of the Heart” by Kenny Loggins. Still chokes me up every time I hear it — especially the version he recorded live from the Redwoods. Awesome.

  •  Comment from Matt Simon

    With lyrical help from the Internet (as well as the reference to Mos Def)…
    Idioteque from Radiohead – (“Ice age coming, let me hear both sides, ice age coming, throw them in the fire”)
    Mos Def – New World Water (“Used to have minerals and zinc in it, now they say it got lead and stink in it”)
    Ben Harper- Excuse me Mr. (“excuse me Mr. but isn’t that your oil in the sea, and the pollution in the air Mr. whose could that be”)
    The Pixies – Monkey Gone to Heaven (“there was a guy an under water guy who controlled the sea got killed by ten million pounds of sludge from new york and new jersey”)

  •  Comment from heidi

    Earth Song by Michael Jackson

  •  Comment from Scot sier

    Happy Earthday….
    A video I made for my “Farmers Song”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SxkRUCdl5zA

  •  Comment from Jo

    I DON’T EAT ANIMALS – by MELANIE

  •  Comment from Tom Reker

    About 50% of Midnight Oil’s catalog.

  •  Comment from Rosa Lage

    Michael Jackson´s Earth Song.

  •  Comment from Carolyn Hopper

    “All Gods Critters Got a Place in the Choir” – Bill Staines
    “Calypso” – John Denver
    “The Wind” John Denver
    “Sunshine on my Shoulders” John Denver
    “The Amazon”(Let this be a voice) John Denver

  •  Comment from Daniel White

    Jeff, thanks for stirring another lively discussion. Here’s my ballot:

    Pixies – “Monkey Gone to Heaven” from Doolittle features Black Francis ruminating about and working himself into a frenzy over humans’ confused, corrosive relationship with the divine and the planet.

    Midnight Oil – If Earth Day had a theme song, it could well be “Earth and Sun and Moon.” But like Tom says, half the catalog from one of the most environmentally and socially conscious bands ever is eligible. Let’s at least also nominate the soaring “Blue Sky Mine” (“Who’s gonna saaaaaaave me?”).

    Grandaddy — As with The Oils, where to start with this criminally under-appreciated band? “Nature Anthem” made a mini-splash as a catchy TV jingle, but pales next to gems like “The Crystal Lake,” “The Group Who Couldn’t Say” (office prisoners released to frolic in the outdoors they’ve forgotten existed), or this candidate for best title ever: “Broken Household Appliance National Forest.”

    R.E.M. – Another tough yet essential choice: “Fall on Me” (oh, acid rain) or “Cuyahoga” (the infamous flaming river: “Underneath the river bed we burned the river down”). I’ll just vote for both.

    Los Lobos – “Will the Wolf Survive” is about the wolf, yes, but also la raza, the people. Rolling Stone got it right in describing the sound of Los Lobos’ first LP as like the history of American rock and roll slathered in Mexican hot sauce.

    Pernice Brothers – “Water Ban” starts; your heart breaks, as Joe Pernice sweetly laments, “It’s hard to understand the cruel, cruel summer of a water ban.”

    Belly – “Feed the Tree” from Star is Tanya Donelly’s driving ode to respect and commitment to each other and to the cycle of life.

    I second Wilco and The Pretenders. But can I please cast my 10th vote to cancel out one previous vote for Michael Jackson’s sappy attempt at cashing in on environmentalism? ;)

  •  Comment from Sue C.

    Grateful Dead “We Can Run”

  •  Comment from Lynn's brother Greg

    Lou Reed’s “Last Great American Whale” from the New York album – I hope he’s wrong when he says: “Americans don’t care too much for anything, land and water the least, they’ll shit in a river or dump battery acid in a lake and conmplain if they can’t swim.”

    Dan White hit a few great ones from Grandaddy above, my favorite is “The Group Who Couldn’t Say”

    Neil’s After the Goldrush is the opus.

    Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land is a uniter we can all get behind.

  •  Comment from Andrew

    Whether or not you understand all the lyrics, Macaco’s Mama Tierra is a great song, and I bet you won’t be able to get it out of your head. NatGeo provided the images for this beautiful video.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-d1CyCW7Xs

  •  Comment from roadtripper

    SEASON’S END by Marillion is a beautiful song about the hole in the ozone layer, and how we’ll explain to our children what we’ll leave behind for them by way of our actions…

    “We’ll tell our children’s children why we grew so tall and reached so high, we left our footprints in the earth, and punched a hole right through the sky. We’ll tell them how we changed the world, and how we tamed the sea, and seasons they will never know in England. So watch the old world melt away, a loss regrets could never mend. You’ll never miss it ’til it’s gone, so say goodbye, say goodbye to season’s end.”

  •  Comment from JIM

    “Come Fly Away” by Jimmie Dale Gilmore (album: ‘Braver Newer World’)
    “Natural Beauty” by Neil Young (from ‘Harvest Moon’)
    “Rocky Mountain High” John Denver
    “River” by Joni Mitchell (if only for the line, “I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”

  •  Comment from JIM

    ..and one more: “’39 ” from Queen’s ‘A Night At The Opera’

  •  Comment from Jay Odell

    Great list and additions. Here’s a few more.

    Paradise by John Prine: “…Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking, Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away”

    Little Boxes by Malvina Reynolds: About suburban sprawl before we called it sprawl

    Greendale by Neil Young–most of the album (ok a little corny and preachy but I still love it).

    America the Beautiful: Different ears may hear it differently but for me this has always been about the beauty of nature.

  •  Comment from Paola B.

    Gotta be Big Yellow Taxi or After the Gold Rush…but what about John Denver? He’s the king of American environmental songs?!? (Country Roads, Annie’s Song, I am the Eagle, Rocky Mountain High)

  •  Comment from Darren Wyville

    I know I missed the deadline. I was in Oregon & without a computer.
    I have always been a big fan of Mother Nature’s Son. Alovely diddy sung by Macca from the Beatles White Album.

    dw

  •  Comment from Jancie

    The Earth Song…Michael Jackson. The video really overwhelmed me!

  •  Comment from Misty

    Clearly not enough people have heard Bruce’s “This Land Is Your Land” or it would be winning by a landslide. It’s haunting, inspiring and ineffably beautiful. Working in conservation, it’s easy to get lost in the weeds of day to day work or weighed down by the daunting challenges. This song fires me up and reminds me to be incredibly grateful to have the luxury of working to protect nature every day.

    Distant second: Mercy, Mercy Me. Marvin’s iconic laid-back cool mixed with the urgency of his message make a heady cocktail of musical brilliance.

    Very close third: After the Gold Rush. A classic. Neil at his best. Bittersweet, beautiful, and straight-in-the-eye challenge to the listener.

    Honorable mention: Fall on Me. REM (Thanks for the reminder, Danny!)

  •  Comment from Wren

    The 3 R’s by Jack Johnson

  •  Comment from Luca

    break up the concrete
    3 R’ s
    this land is your land

  •  Comment from Jennifer Opperman

    There’s Only One – Graham Nash (Songs for Beginners, 1971)

    Nature’s Way – Spirit (Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, 1969)

  •  Comment from Bloopo

    Crystal Blue Persuasion, Tommy James and the Shondells
    Camping Cross Country, Bill Back
    We All Share, Bill Back

  •  Comment from julie

    I can’t believe this hasn’t been listed yet, John Denver-Rhymes and Reasons. This is like the Earth is speaking to us!

  •  Comment from Jackie

    I like this song that I heard up in Martha’s Vineyard one time on a CD with songs about the island, contributed by singers who lived there. The one I like is called “This Island Earth” sung by Carly Simon.

  •  Comment from Jackie

    Sorry – I was wrong it is sung by Jonathan Edwards. You can hear it at this link:
    http://new.music.yahoo.com/jonathan-edwards/tracks/this-island-earth–25788344

  •  Comment from Michelle

    “Living Planet’ by Magpie. Awesome song. “A beautiful and moving collection of songs dealing with the need to nurture and to celebrate Mother Earth and her creatures.”

  •  Comment from Greg Chartier

    Nothing by Pete Seegar? Hard to imagine.

  •  Comment from Nick

    clearly – big yellow taxi

  •  Comment from amy e

    natalie merchant’s Motherland

    “where in hell can you go
    far from the things that you know,’
    far from the sprawl of concrete
    that keeps crawling it way
    about a thousand miles a day”

  •  Comment from cindy

    “Rejoice in the Sun” sung Joan Baez and you could add “Silent
    Running” also sung by Joan Baez from the movie by the same name.

  •  Comment from Kathy Nunez

    I love Calypso by John Denver.

  •  Comment from Margo

    “Spring Song,” by Mendelssohn.

  •  Comment from Steve Palmer

    “Seminole Wind” by John Anderson. Haunting song about how the Florida Everglades were drained in the name of progress.

  •  Comment from herbseeker

    Read the lyrics to Jane Siberry’s “Bound by the Beauty.”
    Macy Gray singing “Beauty in the World” is another favourite.

  •  Comment from Linda Clark

    “Blue Boat Home” by Peter Mayer. All of his songs are relevant. http://www.petermayer.net

  •  Comment from Stina

    Midnight Oil: “Beds are burnin’”
    One More Time: “The Dolphin”
    Michael Jackson: “Earth song”

  •  Comment from Leila

    There is a beautiful song in spanish by JAIME ROLDAN called EL NIÑO and it´s about sea water rising (due to global warming). The link:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmaiqTkyiZI

  •  Comment from Rob Paterson

    Some one finally mentioned Pete Seegar – His album called “God Bless the Grass”
    Title Song lyrics something like
    “God bless the grass that grows through the cracks, the roll the concete over it to try to keep it back… the concrete gets tired of what it has to do…it breaks and it buckles and the grass grows through…”

  •  Comment from Eric

    Spring Wind – Jack Johnson

  •  Comment from Mike Barnett

    There I was, back in the wild again
    And I felt right at home where I belong
    I had that feelin’ comin’ over me again
    Just like it happened so many times before (yeah)

    The spirit of the woods is like an old good friend
    It makes me feel warm and good inside
    I knew his name and it was good to see him again
    ‘Cause in the wind he’s still alive

    Oh, Fred Bear, walk with me down the trails again
    Take me back, back where I belong
    Oh, Fred Bear, I’m glad to have you at my side, my friend
    And I’ll join you in the big hunt before too long

    “Fred Bear” by Ted Nugent

  •  Comment from Anonymous

    Bruce Cockburn. If a tree is fallen

  •  Comment from Diana Huang

    A Horse With No Name – by America

  •  Comment from Rob Paterson

    Don McLean (sp?) – Tapestry
    Lyrics something like:
    “Every thread of creation is held in position by still other strands of things living”

  •  Comment from John

    June Hymn by The Decemberists.

  •  Comment from Blaine Tillander

    Ted Nugent – Fred Bear (Yeah, yeah, stop glaring at me. The politics are all wrong for TNC and you’ll have to put opinions on guns and hunting aside, but this song is an emotional juggernaut paying homage to a great mentor and celebrating our being a true part of the natural world.)

    John Anderson – Seminole Wind

  •  Comment from Christie

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJJW6kxYKh8&feature=share

  •  Comment from Phil Hoose

    Great idea to do this list, Jeff! May I add:

    God Bless the Grass–Malvina Reynolds. The best env. song of all
    Five Feet High and Risin’–Johnny Cash
    The Coming of the Road–I think Eric Anderson
    Dylan’s Ballad in Plain D, just for the line “Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?”
    Phil Hoose

  •  Comment from Kim Graff

    Anything Andrew bird. He’s all about nature, especially his album Noble Beast. Bests are the event are Oh No and Fitz and Dizzyspells. I do really enjoy Anonamimal, it has a fantastic drum solo…its amashing :)

  •  Comment from Deb Evers

    My favorite is “Out in the Country” by Three Dog Night.

  •  Comment from Chas L.

    Belly-Feed the tree

  •  Comment from Lisa U

    Just about anything by John Denver.

  •  Comment from athina

    Annie’s song-fill my senses- like the “mountains in springtime, walk in the rain, storm in the desert, sleepy blue ocean”

  •  Comment from Tim

    1. Conviction Of The Heart-Kenny Loggins
    2. Sacred Ground- Craig Chaquico
    3. Power Of The Sun-John Hall

  •  Comment from Peggy

    Saltwater by Julian Lennon
    We are a rock revolving
    Around a golden sun
    We are a billion children
    Rolled into one
    So when I hear about
    The hole in the sky
    Saltwater wells in my eyes
    We climb the highest mountain
    We’ll make the desert bloom
    We’re so ingenious
    We can walk on the moon
    But when I hear of how
    The forests have died
    Saltwater wells in my eyes

  •  Comment from belle warrington

    Every day is earth day
    A cleaner world is what i want
    Recyle, care about earth
    Try to help coral reefs
    Help out with pollution problems
    Days go by people cutting down trees
    A world without trash
    you can make a diffrence you can

  •  Comment from Samantha Schmick

    I wish people were more considerate.
    i wish I had a cleaner world.
    I wish there wasn’t cancer everywhere.
    I wish people weren’t so cruel.
    i wish there were more coral reefs.
    I wish the world was different.
    I wish I could meet you, Stephanie Ware.
    I wish I could see a coral reef.
    I wish people wouldn’t die so often.
    i wish people would care for our only planet.

    Samantha s.

    P.S. my grandmother died of cancer.

  •  Comment from Saul Alvarado, md

    Where i can find a downladeable version of the song you use in the cable tv cmpaign for save the planet, the sky is yours?

  •  Comment from Adam B.

    The Beach Boys-Day In The Life Of A Tree

    Perhaps the most depressing song you’ll ever hear.

    One day I was full of life
    My sap was rich and I was strong
    From seed to tree I grew so tall
    Through wind and rain I could not fall

    But now my branches suffer
    and my leaves don’t offer
    Poetry to men of song

    Trees like me weren’t meant to live
    If all this world can give
    Pollution and slow death

  •  Comment from Jacob

    A guy going under EV slash wrote a song called “Earthsong” and claimed on Jango.com that was recorded years before MJ made his in ’95 and called it only “Earth Song” probably for fear of been sued for stealing a title which you can’t by the way.

    You can hear that song here
    http://www.reverbnation.com/evslash
    bottom of the player.

    see what you people feel.

  •  Comment from Lauralaura

    Wow how is it that in this world where I can’t find anyone with good music taste I love every one of those songs??? :D

  •  Comment from Colby

    Great list! Here’s some more Environmental Songs that Advocate for Mother Nature! http://www.colbyandawu.com/green-music-10-environmental-songs-that-advocate-for-nature/

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