Essential Question

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 joined in protests over the degradation of the country’s air and water, launching an environmental movement that continues today.

Silent Spring introduced environmental concerns to new audiences, leading to a strengthened environmental movement. But well before the publication of Carson’s book, many Americans were already intimately familiar with the dangers of pollution and the extraction of resources. Poor Americans, people of color, and immigrants have regularly worked in close proximity to dangerous chemicals or other pollutants. For centuries, indigenous people have witnessed the desecration of the environment, from the eradication of the buffalo to the pollution of waterways to the strip mining of mountains considered sacred. Songs created by these communities that address such experiences and concerns have long been part of the American musical landscape.

In part thanks to the publication of Silent Spring,  environmentally-minded songs began to become commercially popular in the 1960s. In 1962, Buffy Sainte-Marie released the song “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” which protested the U.S. Government’s treatment of both Native Americans and the environment. While the song did not make the charts, it was widely influential in the Greenwich Village folk music scene which went on to inform the Folk music genre.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, some of the countries most well-known singer songwriters began following Sainte-Marie’s lead. 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. Marvin Gaye voiced his sorrow and concern for the polluting of the natural world with his 1971 hit single, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” singing, “Whoa, mercy, mercy me / Things ain’t what they used to be, no, no / Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas / Fish, full of mercury.”

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.

This unit made possible in part by the Positive Legacy Foundation

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The main ideas and historical importance of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which detailed threats to the environment from pollution and the use of pesticides
    • The events surrounding the celebration of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970
    • The growing attention of Singer-Songwriters in the late 1960s and early 1970s to themes relating to nature and the environment
    • The musical contributions of such Singer-Songwriters as Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Marvin Gaye, James Taylor, Neil Young, and Jackson Browne
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Students will be able to understand how singer-songwriters from the 1960s to today have addressed environmental concerns in their music by analyzing lyrics, newspaper articles, and photographs.


Motivational Activity: 

  1. Display Image 1, Environmental Protesters. Ask the class:
  • Who might be the people in the picture?
  • What are they doing? Where do they appear to be doing it?
  • What props are they using?
  • What is the message they might be trying to get across?

2.  Display Image 2, Front Page of the Wisconsin State Journal, April 23, 1970. Ask students:

  • What does the main headline say? What news is this headline reporting?
  • What is “Earth Day”? What might have people been protesting in the first Earth Day?
  • What does the article say about who participated in Earth Day? Why was this particularly newsworthy in 1970?

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 to teacher: 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 to each student, and ask for a volunteer to read the short introduction out loud.

3. 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.

4. Ask each pair to discuss:

  • How does Carson describe America in the first two paragraphs? How do the people interact with the environment in this world?
  • What does she describe happening to America in the rest of the chapter?
  • How does Carson develop the idea of the “voices of spring”? How is each voice developed? What does she suggest ultimately happens to these voices?
  • How does Carson build her argument? How does her introduction of each “voice” build toward her conclusion?
  • Do you think Carson is effective in painting a picture of what is happening to the environment? Why or why not?
  • What do you predict the rest of Carson’s book deals with?
  • Why do you think this book resonated with so many readers in the early 1960s?

5. Play the short excerpt from Joni Mitchell’s live performance of her 1970 song “Woodstock.” Then display Image 3, Woodstock Lyrics. (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.) Ask students:

  • What does Mitchell suggest happens when you “camp out on the land”?
  • What do you think Mitchell means when she says, “we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden”?
  • Is the idea of “the garden” similar to Carson’s depiction of farmlands “where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings”? Why or why not?
  • According to the lyrics, what else would people do while they were at Yasgur’s farm? What does Mitchell seem to be suggesting about the connection between Rock and Roll and being back in the garden? How might these two together help “get my soul free”?

6. Set up four listening stations around the room:

7. Distribute Handout 2 – Lyrics for Songs in This Lesson and Handout 3 – Comparing Songs.

8. 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 to teacher: it is up to the instructor to decide whether students will complete this activity individually or in small groups or pairs.)

9. Allow students sufficient time to visit all four stations and complete the chart on Handout 3. Reconvene the class and discuss:

  • Are there common themes to all four songs? If so, what are they?
  • Are all the songs overtly about the environmental movement? Are some more explicit about threats to the environment than others? Do you think, for example, that “Carolina in My Mind” is a song about the environmental movement? Why or why not? Does a song have to be explicitly about a historical event to reflect what is happening at the time it was written/performed? Why or why not?
  • Remember that these performers are called “Singer-Songwriters” because they generally perform material that they themselves have written. Why do you think many Singer-Songwriters might have chosen to write about themes relating to nature and the environment in the late 1960s and early 1970s?
  • Do these songs reflect the influence of Silent Spring? What specific evidence can you find in the songs to suggest that they do?
  • Do these songs reflect the spirit of Earth Day and the idea of getting “back to the garden”? Cite specific evidence in your answer.
  • If you had to pick one of these songs to be the theme song for Earth Day, which would it be and why?

Summary Activity:

  1. Form students into groups, and pass out to each group Handout 4 – Texts in Conversation Activity. Once completed, ask students groups to share what they wrote on the chart. Then ask students:
    • What different arguments did each of the three documents in the handout provide?
    • What might have been the motivation for writing each of the documents?
    • Did you find one document more compelling than the others? Why?
    • Currently, the European Union has banned the use of Neonicotinoids, however they can still be legally used in the United States of America. What might explain this discrepancy?

Extension Activities:

  1. Writing Prompt: 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Have students engage in a creative writing exercise by writing their own song lyrics about the current state of the environment.


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text

  • Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Reading 2: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
  • Reading 3: Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.
  • Craft and Structure 4: Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
  • Reading 5: Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
  • Craft and Structure 6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
  • Reading 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

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

  • Text Types and Purposes 3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12

  • Comprehension & Collaboration 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Comprehension & Collaboration 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
  • Comprehension & Collaboration 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.
  • Presentation of Knowledge 4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Career Technical Education Standards (California Model) – Arts, Media and Entertainment Pathway Standards

Design, Visual and Media Arts (A)

  • A1.0 Demonstrate ability to reorganize and integrate visual art elements across digital media and design applications.
    A1.1 View and respond to a variety of industry-related artistic products integrating industry appropriate vocabulary.
    A1.4 Select industry-specific works and analyze the intent of the work and the appropriate use of media.
    A1.5 Research and analyze the work of an artist or designer and how the artist’s distinctive style contributes to their industry production.
    A1.9 Analyze the material used by a given artist and describe how its use influences the meaning of the work. ia, and Entertainment |
    A3.0 Analyze and assess the impact of history and culture on the development of professional arts and media products.
    A3.2 Describe how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence and are reflected in a variety of artistic products.
    A3.3 Identify contemporary styles and discuss the diverse social, economic, and political developments reflected in art work in an industry setting.
    A4.0 Analyze, assess, and identify effectiveness of artistic products based on elements of art, the principles of design, and professional industry standards.
    A4.2 Deconstruct how beliefs, cultural traditions, and current social, economic, and political contexts influence commercial media (traditional and electronic).
    A4.5 Analyze and articulate how society influences the interpretation and effectiveness of an artistic product.
    A5.0 Identify essential industry competencies, explore commercial applications and develop a career specific personal plan.
    A5.2 Explore the role of art and design across various industry sectors and content areas.
    A5.3 Deconstruct works of art, identifying psychological content found in the symbols and images and their relationship to industry and society.
    A6.0 Analyze characteristics of subgenres (e.g., satire, parody, allegory, pastoral) that are used in poetry, prose, plays, novels, short stories, essays, and other basic genres.
    A6.1 Evaluate the ways in which irony, tone, mood, the author’s style, and the “sound” of language achieve specific rhetorical or aesthetic purposes or both.
    A6.2 Analyze the way in which authors through the centuries have used archetypes drawn from myth and tradition in literature, film, political speeches, and religious writings.
    A6.3 Debate the philosophical arguments presented in literary works to determine whether the authors’ positions have contributed to the quality of each work and the credibility of the characters (philosophical approach).

Performing Arts (B)

  • B2.0 Read, listen to, deconstruct, and analyze peer and professional music using the elements and terminology of music.
    B2.2 Describe how the elements of music are used.
    B2.5 Analyze and describe significant musical events perceived and remembered in a given industry generated example.
    B2.6 Analyze and describe the use of musical elements in a given professional work that makes it unique, interesting, and expressive.
    B2.7 Demonstrate the different uses of form, both past and present, in a varied repertoire of music in commercial settings from diverse genres, styles, and professional applications.
    B7.0 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of multiple industry performance products from a discipline-specific perspective.
    B7.3 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the musician in the professional setting.
    B8.0 Deconstruct the aesthetic values that drive professional performance and the artistic elements necessary for industry production.
    B8.4 Use complex evaluation criteria and terminology to compare and contrast a variety of genres of professional performance products.

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 3: People, Places, and Environments
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Theme 6: Power, Authority, and Governance
  • Theme 7: Production, Distributions, and Consumption
  • Theme 8: Science, Technology, and Society
  • Theme 10: Civic Ideals and Practices

National Standards for Music Education

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.

National Core Arts Standards


  • Anchor Standard 7: Perceive and analyze artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard 8: Interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard 9: Apply criteria to evaluate artistic work.


  • Anchor Standard 10: Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art.
  • Anchor Standards 11: Relate artistic ideas and work with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding.