SINGER-SONGWRITERS AND THE ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT
How did the singer-songwriters of the 1960s and 70s address the concerns of the environmental movement?
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
-- Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock” (1970)
In 1962, marine biologist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a chilling account of the damage done to the environment by pollution, particularly in the form of chemicals and pesticides. Eight years later, on the first “Earth Day,” Americans all over the country joined in protests over the degradation of the country’s air and water, launching an environmental movement that continues today. Popular music began to reflect the same concerns.
This influence was particularly apparent in the work of the Singer-Songwriters. Some made assertive statements about protecting the land from the ravages of corporate greed: As Jackson Browne sang in “Before the Deluge,” “Some of them were angry at the way the earth was abused/By the men who learned how to forge her beauty into power.” In “Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell lamented that “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” and invoked a world where “They took all the trees / Put 'em in a tree museum / And they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em.” Mitchell explicitly called attention to the insecticide DDT, a specific concern at the heart of Silent Spring.
At the same time, many Singer-Songwriters expressed a more general unease about America’s increasing urban sprawl and suburbanization, and a longing for a closer connection to the land. “In my mind I’m gone to Carolina / Can’t you see the sunshine / Can’t you just feel the moonshine,” sang James Taylor in “Carolina in My Mind.” In “After the Gold Rush,” Neil Young painted a portrait of “a fanfare blowin' to the sun / That was floating on the breeze / Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s.”
In this lesson, students will analyze a series of songs articulating a connection to nature and the environment — a longing to “get ourselves back to the garden” — and examine the ways in which they reflect a growing attention to environmental issues in American culture.
Video pages: Jackson Browne - Before the Deluge (1976) | Joni Mitchell - Woodstock (1970) | Neil Young - After The Gold Rush (1970) | Joni Mitchell - Big Yellow Taxi (1970) | James Taylor - Carolina In My Mind (1968)
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
1. Display the following image of environmental protesters:
Discuss as a class:
2. Display image of the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal from April 23, 1970, along with the excerpt from the lead story:
Discuss as a class:
3. Inform students that the first Earth Day was on April 22, 1970, and that environmental protests were held all over the country. Earth Day continues to be commemorated every year.
1. Note: You may wish to assign the opening activity with the reading from Silent Spring as homework to be completed the night before the lesson. In that case, the discussion questions listed below may be assigned as a homework writing activity.
2. Distribute Handout 1: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring.
3. Ask for a volunteer to read the short introduction out loud.
4. Divide students into pairs. The members of each pair will read the passage aloud, alternating by paragraph. Both students should follow along, underlining key words and phrases.
5. Ask each pair to discuss:
6. Play the short excerpt from Joni Mitchell’s live performance of her 1970 song “Woodstock” and display the lyrics below. (If students are unfamiliar with Woodstock, briefly explain that it was a three-day music festival in 1969 that attracted almost half a million people. It was held on farmland owned by a man named Max Yasgur in Bethel, N.Y.)
8. Set up four listening stations around the room.
10. Instruct students to visit each station to listen to the song excerpts and follow along with the lyrics. They will record their observations on Handout 3. Divide students so that an equal number begin at each station. (Note: It is up to the instructor to decide whether students will complete this activity individually or in small groups or pairs.)
11. Allow students sufficient time to visit all four stations and complete the chart on Handout 3.
How did the Singer-Songwriters of the late 1960s and early 70s reflect the concerns of the burgeoning environmental movement in their music? Be sure to discuss the influence of the publication of Silent Spring and the first Earth Day on the environmental movement in your answer.
Ask students to research the history of Earth Day since 1970. Have them identify songs by popular artists from later eras that reflect the concerns expressed on Earth Day. You may also wish to ask students to identify a current song that might be used as a theme for an upcoming Earth Day celebration in your school or classroom.
College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text
College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12
Core Music Standard: Responding
Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.
Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators' and/or performers' expressive intent.
Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.
Core Music Standard: Connecting
Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.