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.