Planet Rock: Environmental Histories of Songs

Leif Fredrickson

April 23, 2019 (updated)

From the redwood forests to Standing Rock. In the ghetto and on the moon. Three miles down the mineshaft and up in the skies of L.A. From before the deluge, when the land belonged to God, to the year twenty-five-twenty-five – our environments have shaped our music. And we have used music to celebrate, scorn, commune with, and protest our environments.

We may live on a hungry planet, even a poison planet, but we also live on planet rock.

Taboo and others, “Stand Up / Stand N Rock #NoDAPL,” December 14, 2016.

Enviro-History is launching a series of essays that will explore the relationship between music, especially specific songs, and the environment and history. As with the rest of website, “environment” is construed broadly. Yes, it includes paeans to the Rocky Mountains, but it also includes cities, houses, and workplaces. And it includes a wide variety of cultural conceptions of, and metaphors about, nature, Mother Earth, pollution and so on.

The series is emphatically not limited to those songs connected to post-1960s mainstream environmentalism. Those songs are important, but they are just a subset of the songs that are about the environment.

The series will look at music across time and space. It will probably end up heavily weighted toward the twentieth century, and especially the late-twentieth century. But it will, hopefully, also include songs from the much more distant past, as well as some more recent releases. Likewise, it will probably be weighted toward music in English from English-speaking countries. But hopefully it will also include music from other countries and music not in English. Whatever the time and space, the objective is to situate the songs in the cultural, political, technological, and environmental context of their times.

We’ll explore popular songs and musicians, but also deep cuts, forgotten albums, and underground, subcultural music. We’ll explore critically acclaimed music and status-bestowing esoterica, but also music that critics and aficionados regard as pedestrian or corny.

Songs and artists discussed or alluded to in this essay, except “Stand Up / Stand N Rock #NoDAPL” and “How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise?”

Finally, we’ll survey music across multiple genres, and probe how the environment and “nature” are incorporated into the genres. Prog rock and psychedelic rock, for example, have cultivated a quasi-religious relationship to nature, while indigenous music, folk, and gospel draw on older religious ideas that intertwine plants, animals, and the land with spirituality. More secularly, blues, folk, gospel, bluegrass, and country celebrate the rural landscape, while hip hop, punk, and electronica celebrate the urban landscape. Rock’n’roll and soul split the difference.

Those unfamiliar with intricate classical, jazz, and electronic compositions – like me – may not think of these genres as having much to do with the environment or “nature.” But, in fact, some of the most sustained meditations on these topics come out of these genres. Composers from Ludwig von Beethoven and Igor Stravinsky to Stevie Wonder, Terence Blanchard, and Dan Deacon have devoted entire symphonies/albums to the pastoral life, the mystical spring, the life of plants, Hurricane Katrina, and the landscape of the continental United States.

RCA record sleave and detail from a Josh Mcalear drawing for the thrash metal band Toxic Holocaust.

Generalizations about genres, of course, have many exceptions and misconceptions. For example, folk-rock is the genre most commonly associated with environmental concern. Lists of the “best Earth Day songs” inevitably include a slew of folk-rockers like Neil Young, John Denver, Joni Mitchell, and John Prine, along with Marvin Gaye’s soul classic “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).” Folk-rock’s reputation as a home of environmentalism is well-deserved. Song-for-song, however, it’s no match for heavy metal, particularly the subgenres of thrash metal and grindcore, which are obsessed with environmental destruction. But for reasons stemming from uninspired list-making to mainstream environmentalists’ typically middle-class backgrounds, you’re unlikely to see a Napalm Death or Brutal Truth song on a mainstream Earth Day list.

You are also not likely to find anything more than a token hip-hop song on these lists. The media does not tend to emphasize hip-hop’s deep engagement with the environment, perhaps because the genre primarily focuses on the urban environment – an environment that mainstream, white environmentalists have often ignored. But, in addition to hip-hop’s important focus on the human-built environment, hip-hop has also engaged with mainstream environmental messages. In what was probably the first “political” hip-hop song, for example, “How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise?” from 1980, Brother D raps:

Unemployment’s high, the housing’s bad
And the schools are teaching wrong
Cancer from the water, pollution in the air
But you’re partying hard, like you just don’t care

Brother D with Collective Effort, “How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise?” 1980, Clappers Records, 12” Vinyl, CL-0001.

All of this is to say that music has a deep, rich, complicated relationship to the environment – or rather, to environments. The first three essays in this series reflect some the diversity in musical genres, environments, and environmental values.

Series Essays (So Far):
1. Gil Scott-Heron, “Whitey on the Moon” (1970). Joseph Thompson tells us about the relationship between the 1969 moon landing and the urban environment of black Americans, via Scott-Heron’s angry, but humorous, song.
2. The Clash, “London Calling” (1979). Stephen Macekura riffs on Joe Strummer’s entirely plausible vision of global environmental apocalypse.
3. Bruce Springsteen, “Youngstown” (1995). Jonathan Cohen looks at the fraught, two-century-long relationship between (de)industrialization, environmental destruction, and worker dignity and prosperity.
4. Jarek Ervin, “I’m Mad” (1980). Jarek Ervin excavates the 4 Skins, a short-lived group whose black members set them apart from most other punk groups of the time, were unique in constructing a detailed sense of New York as a living space.
5. Jacob Darwin Hamblin, “Blackened” (1988). One could argue that “Blackened” is a planet-in-peril kind of song, reminiscent of the Doors’ 1967 “When the Music’s Over.” But not quite, Hamblin says. Metallica does not want to hear the scream of the butterfly.
6. Keith Pluymers, Wilderness (2013). Wilderness has long been a powerful and fraught concept with which to understand North American nature. In their 2013 album, The Handsome Family attempt to reimagine the concept as something more like a force than a place, as Keith Pluymers explains.
7. B. Ricardo Brown, In a Wild Sanctuary (1970). There is a profound sense of loss that pervades Bernie Krause’s work, a pioneer in soundscape studies and acoustic ecology. Brown takes us through the history Krause’s work and shows what it reveals about “wilderness” and the “Anthropocene.”
8. Leif Fredrickson, “We Gotta Fight Pollution Now””. (1966) If you’ve been told that working-class people aren’t environmentalists, you might be surprised to find out that one of the first songs written explicitly about pollution appeared on a United Auto Workers album of labor songs.

Stay tuned for more. Music is, among other things, a guide to what we think may happen to us. It is also an indicator of what may happen to us, since music helps inform our views and guide our actions.

What’s in store for us? What will they do to the rain? Where will the children play? Will we have the blessed green green grass of home – even a green heaven – or the greenhouse effect and a green hell?

We have some musical signposts: Don’t drink, or even go near, the water. Don’t kill the whale or bang the drum. Woodman, spare that tree! Keep the jungle alive! And above all: Never turn your back on Mother Earth. As the bloody writing on the billboard tells us, if the earth dies screaming, there won’t be no country music, there won’t be no rock’n’roll.

Leif Fredrickson is a historian and creator of Enviro-History.


Leif Fredrickson, "Planet Rock: Environmental Histories of Songs," Enviro-History.com, April 23, 2019, http://Enviro-History.com/planet-rock.html.