Every lifestyle has its de facto soundtrack. Depressed suburban teens have emo music. Trust funders living beachside have a steady supply of Bob Marley to keep them chanting down Babylon. And old folks with office jobs have Paul Simon and the Gipsy Kings.
What about environmentalists?
Besides recordings of rain storms or whale songs, what do tree huggers and bioregionalists listen to when they jam out? Well, here is a collection of eco-groovy tunes to add to your playlist that not only rock, but will garner you instant enviro street cred.
"Woodman, Spare That Tree!” by George Pope Morris
George Pope Morris cofounded the New York Evening Mirror daily newspaper in 1831. Aside from publishing, Morris was also a renowned poet and songwriter. His most well-known tune is an 1837 ode to deforestation titled “Woodman, Spare That Tree!” often credited as the first-ever environmental protest song. Morris proclaims: “Woodman, spare that tree! / Touch not a single bough! / In youth it sheltered me, / And I’ll protect it now.”
“Paradise” by John Prine
John Prine’s tune “Paradise” is simultaneously nostalgic, warm-hearted and indignant. Prine laments the destruction of Appalachia (specifically Kentucky’s Green River) at the hands of the coal mining industry—a sentiment as apropos today as it was when the song was penned in 1971. Prine sings: “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.”
“This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie’s 1944 classic “This Land Is Your Land” took on the status of an alternate national anthem for many in the 1960s counterculture when the song was revived by the likes of Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. With beautiful imagery and lyrical nuance, Guthrie—the poet laureate of the downtrodden who was famous for performing with a sticker on his guitar reading “This Machine Kills Fascists”—reminds us that “from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters, this land was made for you and me.”
“New World Water” by Mos Def
Brooklyn-born MC Mos Def is known for espousing his somewhat radical political perspective on issues ranging from Hurricane Katrina to the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. In that same vein, “New World Water,” from his 1999 debut album, is a cleverly written examination of the global water crisis. In no uncertain terms Mos Def breaks down the issue with lyrics like: “There are places where TB is common as TV / Cause foreign-based companies go and get greedy / The type of cats who pollute the whole shoreline / Have it purified and then sell it for a dollar twenty-five.”
“So Damn Good” by Bonnie Raitt and Jon Cleary
How did a tune about staying home to get a little loving make it onto a list of eco-conscious music? Well, Bonnie Raitt—a long-time supporter of environmental causes and Earthjustice—teamed up with the crew at the outdoor gear company Patagonia to raise some funds in support of Earthjustice. Every download of “So Damn Good” from the Apple iTunes store benefits our organization and gives you a reason to sing aloud and drum on your steering while waiting for the light to change.
Download the song at the Patagonia Music Collective.
“Trees Are Dying” by Dr. Octagon
Keith Thornton is a New York-based hip-hop artist who goes by the name of Kool Keith—unless he’s performing under one of his many pseudonyms, including Dr. Dooom and Dr. Octagon. Suffice to say, Thornton is a rather bizarre character who was once supposedly institutionalized at Bellevue Hospital. The video that accompanies “Trees Are Dying” is perhaps even odder than the lyrics to the song itself. Thornton warns us that: “Papers get printed / Trees may be extinct like the elephants / You know the advancement for the elegance / Dow Jones industrial / Real like my reels / You know the environment is changing its appeal / Information is more concealed.” Um, alright then.
“Monsanto Song” by Seize the Day
Seize the Day, a United Kingdom folk band, has a sense of humor. The group is known for its environmentally themed protest songs. “Monsanto Song,” as you might guess, disparages the biotechnology giant Monsanto for creating unfriendly products like Agent Orange and genetically engineered food crops (which Earthjustice attorneys are currently fighting against in court). As the song says, at Monsanto “we’d like to think that there’s a little piece of us in everyone.”
“Be Healthy” by Dead Prez
Calling the Florida hip-hop duo Dead Prez militant would be an understatement. While most of their music is charged with socialist philosophy and screeds against the government, “Be Healthy” is free of vitriolic rants and instead promotes living a healthy lifestyle. The tune gives props to drinking water rather than soda, and eating lentil soup instead of candy bars, with lyrics like: “I don’t eat no meat, no dairy, no sweets / Only ripe vegetables, fresh fruit and whole wheat / I’m from the old school, my household smells like soul food / Curried falafel, barbecued tofu.”
“Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell
As Joni tells us, “They paved over paradise and put up a parking lot.” The bastards! A classic tune with a memorable chorus, Joni laments a landscape of pink hotels and tree museums, and pines for a time when nature used to roam free. Perhaps truer words were never sung: “Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got / Till it’s gone.”
“Winnebago Warrior” by Dead Kennedys
The San Francisco-based punk group Dead Kennedys has a rather sardonic take on those who cross the country in a hulking recreational vehicle to experience nature. Dubbing the motor home set “brave as old John Wayne,” lead singer Jello Biafra drops gems like: “Roughin’ it in the great outdoors / Guidebooks tell us where to go / Winnebago Warrior / Slow down traffic climbing hills / 30 gallons to the mile / Honey, quick, the Polaroid.”
“Herbicide Danger” by Rod Deal and the Ideals
I attended graduate school at Humboldt State University in far Northern California, a region well-known for its eco-conscious nature and Earth First!-style protests. Among my cadre of similarly minded friends, and for many folks in the county, Rod Deal is something of a local legend. He was an environmentalist and a reggae musician, and many of his tunes discussed life on California’s rugged north coast. “Herbicide Danger” is one of his best. The song warns of the harm caused by herbicide spraying, especially in the region’s famed redwood forests.
“Our Mecca Tha Woods” by Franco
Finally, sticking with the far Northern California theme is Humboldt County-based rapper Franco. While most hip-hop songs on the radio extol the wonderfulness of drinking champagne and wearing lots of gold jewelry, Franco is a breath of fresh air. “Our Mecca Tha Woods” discusses environmental harms and at the same time inserts some local flavor with references to the clearcutting of Maxxam, Inc. and the 1964 flood that devastated the region. Franco sets the tone for the song with his opening words: “Long before the land was overharvested and cattle branded / Open-heartedness was targeted for cash advances.”