On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day was observed to call attention to the need to protect the environment. Ironically, the current pandemic crisis has had its ecological benefits. With factories shut down and less car and plane travel happening, people around the world are reporting the clearest skies and lowest pollution levels in decades. As we celebrate the 50th Earth Day, here are some folk songs for the occasion.
With the recent passing of John Prine, “Paradise,” one of his best-known songs, was an obvious choice. Prine laments the way strip-mining destroyed the landscapes of his childhood. This song appeared on Prine’s first album, but he performed it throughout his life, as in this 2019 version with Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives.
Jean Ritchie was born in 1922, in Viper, Kentucky, the youngest of fourteen children. From her family, she learned a large repertoire of folk songs, some with centuries-old roots in the British Isles. Ritchie moved to New York City in the late 1940’s, where she met other notables of the folk revival, such as Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and folksong collector Alan Lomax. She also began writing her own songs. This one, like John Prine’s “Paradise,” recounts the losses, personal and environmental, caused by strip-mining. In this 1993 video, Ritchie is accompanied by her sons, Jon and Peter Pickow.
The Cedar River Festival is a weekend-long event that has been happening for over 30 years in the Waterloo/Cedar Falls area. Each year, volunteers spend a Saturday cleaning trash out of the river and then celebrate with the music and arts festival on Sunday.
Sometime in the 1990’s, Waterloo singer-songwriter Uncle Chuck Finch wrote a song about the river cleanup, and Bob Long used footage of the cleanup to make this video.
Bill Steele wrote “Garbage!” in 1969. It’s likely that it was sung at some of the very first Earth Day gatherings. Pete Seeger and Mike Agranoff added a fourth verse to the song, and Seeger performed and recorded it numerous times, including as a duet with Oscar the Grouch on a 1974 Sesame Street LP. Oscar the Grouch made a special guest appearance along with Tom Chapin and friends at a concert in honor of Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday in 2009.
This is not exactly an environmental song, but rather a love song for the planet. Musician and songwriter Caetano Veloso is one of the originators of the Brazilian musical movement known as Tropicalismo, which began in the 1960’s. His songs and his attitude brought him unwelcome attention from the military dictatorship in power in Brazil at that time; he was arrested in 1969 and later went into exile.
While in prison, he saw for the first time a picture of the earth as taken from space, which inspired this song. The chorus says “Earth! Earth! However distant the wandering navigator, who could ever forget you?”
Read a full English translation of the lyrics here, and marvel at the triple rhyme of the words “distant,” “wandering” and “navigator” in Portuguese. And watch the video to see how Veloso uses his entire body to communicate the song.