An Environmental Playlist of the Twentieth Century

Crowd at opening ceremony at the Woodstock music festival, 1969

Lists of environmental songs, often leaning toward the environmentalist, already circulate on the internet (see compilations in The Nation and The Guardian). Here I offer something quite different: seven environmental themes in popular recorded music in the United States (and later, Great Britain) from the 1920s to the 1970s. These were formative years in the history of environmental discourse in the English-speaking world.

1. America as Land

At a special meeting of the American History Association in 1893, held in Chicago as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition, Frederick Jackson Turner read a paper titled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” He famously characterized United States history as a social, cultural, and political process of Anglo-European settlers moving west across the continent, sowing the laborious seeds of what would become the lifeblood of American politics, law, economics, and culture. Turner shaped historical scholarship for many decades and foreshadowed the critical role that environmental imaginings of the territorial United States would play within nationalist discourse in the twentieth and arguably, twenty-first centuries.

Benedict Anderson was the first to put a finger on the curious, constructed nature of the “nation,” arguing in Imagined Communities (1983) that the historic rise of print capitalism led to the proliferation of printed vernacular languages and shared rituals of literacy, such as reading daily newspapers, that bound complete strangers to one another as imagined, linguistic communities. Scholars have since developed Anderson’s ideas, but few have squarely considered how popular recorded music—experienced aurally by phonograph or radio—also gave shape to the idea of the nation as a “land.”

Two environmental songs recorded in the United States on the eve of World War II are especially illustrative. Although Kate Smith’s 1938 rendition of “God Bless America”—a song originally written by Irving Berlin in 1918—and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”—written in 1940 but not released until after the war—have different political goals, the lyrics of both songs describe the United States as a continent-spanning environment: seas, mountains, forests, and prairies that bear some hallowed relation to a sense of belonging to an American homeland. Woody Guthrie’s song was originally titled “God Bless America for Me” as a rebuttal to the popularity of Smith’s rendition.

Kate Smith, “God Bless America” (1938)

Woody Guthrie, “This Land is Your Land” (1940)

2. High Water Rising

With the devastation of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina a not-so-distant memory, it is unsurprising that the scale of recent floods in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean has reinvigorated climate change discourse. Environmental historiography reminds us that the devastation of flooding in the Mississippi Valley dates back many decades, if not centuries. John Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America (1997); Ari Kelman’s A River and It’s City (2006); Christopher Morris’s The Big Muddy (2012); and Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams (2014) have all added nuance to the scholarly portrait of life, labor, ecology, and engineering along the lower Mississippi River.

The descendant of field songs and slave spirituals, “blues” music expressed the black American experience of life and labor on the rivers and farms of the American South. Not long after the Mississippi River flood of 1927, blues singers throughout the lower Mississippi River Valley recorded environmental songs about high water rising and the displacement of thousands of people. The iconic blues singer Bessie Smith recorded a song called “Backwater Blues” shortly after the great Mississippi flood of 1927. That same year, blues performer Blind Lemon Jefferson sang a song called “Rising High Water Blues.”

Bessie Smith, “Backwater Blues” (1927)

Blind Lemon Jefferson, “Rising High Water Blues” (1927)

3. Pests

The symbolic power of the boll weevil remains on display in Enterprise, Alabama, where a statue (erected by town leaders in 1919) honoring the boll weevil reminds the community of the insect’s historical power to push farmers in the area to diversify their crops and rid the pest from their community, or to leave the cotton fields for cities further north

The symbolic power of the boll weevil remains on display in Enterprise, Alabama, where a 1919 statue reminds the community of the insect’s power. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

At his annual speech to Congress in December of 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt singled out the boll weevil (Anthonomus grandis)—a beetle from Central America that feeds and breeds exclusively on cotton bulbs—as a “serious menace” to American cotton farmers. Initially crossing the Rio Grande in the early 1890s near Brownsville, Texas, the boll weevil migrated into the ecological landscape of the South over the coming decades, taking a serious toll on American cotton production on farms as far north as Kentucky, reaching North Carolina by the 1920s. As economic historians continue to explore and debate the extent of the boll weevil’s economic impact, James C. Giesen’s Boll Weevil Blues: Cotton, Myth, and Power in the American South (2011) makes the case that the boll weevil’s ultimate power lay in the insect’s influence over the cultural imagination: the boll weevil functioned as a totem of popular consciousness, obscuring the social structures and economic frameworks that bound poor Southern tenant farmers to the cotton crop.

Just as a number of blues singers recorded environmental songs about flooding in the Mississippi Valley, commercial record labels in the 1920s and folklorists in the 1930s and 1940s also featured songs about the boll weevil invasion. The “Boll Weevil” song (“Boll Weevil Blues,” “Mississippi Boll Weevil,” and so on) generally personified the boll weevil as a migrant not all that keen on asking permission to stay and indifferent to the financial ruin that its life among the cotton brings to the farmer. Although their respective accounts of the boll weevil vary in imagery, both Lead Belly and Blind Willie McTell sing about the beetle’s influence on their capacities to afford gasoline.

Lead Belly, “Boll Weevil Blues” (1940)

Blind Willie McTell, “Boll Weevil” (1940)

4. Work

Thomas Andrew’s Killing for Coal (2008) registered the growing friction of the intimate “workscapes” of the early-twentieth century coal-mining town of Ludlow, Colorado and the national, and increasingly global, demand for coal. When a pitched battle erupted in 1914 between the United Mine Workers of America and the guards and state militia there to protect the interests of Colorado’s industrial barons, nearly fifty people (predominantly men, but also women and children) would be killed.

By the 1960s, the country blues and folk recordings of the era by the likes of Bessie Smith, Lead Belly, and Woody Guthrie gave shape to a new generation of songwriters. In the early 1960s, Bob Dylan would become a prophetic lyricist within popular American culture, writing poignant songs about current events in the tradition of his forebears. Like Thomas Andrew’s monograph, Dylan’s song “North Country Blues” showcases the complex interplay between natural resources, global capital, and local labor conditions in northern Minnesota. Here is an excellent video of Bob Dylan performing the song at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, introducing it as: “a song about iron-ore mines and an iron-ore town.” John Prine’s environmental song “Paradise” tells the story of strip mining in the town of Paradise, Kentucky. Like Dylan, Prine links the exhaustion of local landscapes to the operation of large-scale mining companies on which many towns in the United States depended.

Bob Dylan, “North Country Blues” (1964)

John Prine, “Paradise” (1971)

5. The Jungle

The new PBS historical documentary series The Vietnam War (2017) produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick is part of a long line of cinematic portrayals of the war since the end of United States military action in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. Fictional films about American military experiences in Vietnam such as Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), and Full Metal Jacket (1987) explored the ecology of Southeast Asia, framing the jungle as a dark, mysterious, and ultimately terrifying place to be. David Briggs’s monograph, Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta (2012) focused on the ecology of the Mekong Delta and charts the failure of colonial military states—dating back to the French conquest of the 1860s—as, in part, a failure of military engineering to navigate and exercise dominion over the watery, marshy landscape.

Helicopter sprays defoliation agent on forest during the U.S. war in Vietnam.

Helicopter sprays defoliation agent on forest during the U.S. war in Vietnam. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

Popular recorded music during the later years of the United States war in Vietnam conveyed the jungle as a mind-bending, dystopic place. Credence Clearwater Revival (CCR) released a song called “Run Through the Jungle” (1970). It was considered a song about the war for many years. Last year, the lead singer of CCR, John Fogerty, told Rolling Stone magazine that the jungle was a metaphor for life in a gun-crazed America, bringing the CCR song into harmony with a song like “Concrete Jungle” (1973) by Bob Marley and the Wailers, which framed the modern city as a jungle of psychological and spiritual oppression within the black Atlantic world.

Credence Clearwater Revival, “Run Through the Jungle” (1970)

Bob Marley and the Wailers, “Concrete Jungle” (1973)

6. Invasive Species

The ecological dynamics of invasive species showcased in Alfred Crosby’s deeply influential scholarship—most notably The Columbian Exchange (1972) and Ecological Imperialism (1986)—examined the ways in which humans wittingly or unwittingly transmitted ecological and epidemiological change. The rise of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1960s was a transatlantic exchange of its own sort. Recordings of American blues and folk musicians inspired many British bands: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who, Led Zeppelin, and many more. Indeed, the influx of music from across the Atlantic was known as the “British invasion.”

Giant Hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum. Image from Wikipedia.

Giant Hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

One invading band even had a song about invasive species. A British band called Genesis (later to split into the successful solo careers of Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins) recorded a song about the giant hogweed that was brought to Britain by a Victorian explorer who plucked “the regal hogweed” from a marsh in the Russian hills. Little did the explorer know in the nineteenth century that the hogweed would be represented as an existential threat, choking the river shorelines throughout Great Britain and much of northern Europe. With a preacher’s cadence, the American funk icon James Brown described a different type of invasion in his song “King Heroine” (1972).

Genesis, “Return of the Giant Hogweed” (1971)

James Brown, “King Heroine” (1972)

7. Nature as Eden

By the late 1960s, recording artists were beginning to use holy imaginings of nature as a means of critiquing urban sprawl, air pollution, and the looming threat of nuclear apocalypse. Many environmental songs illustrate why William Cronon problematized imaginary binaries between human society and the natural environment in “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” (1995). By gesturing at the cultural and historical construction of “wilderness,” Cronon questioned one of the most popular ways that the public, and even environmentalists, imagined and continue to imagine the environment: as a virginal landscape—a place “out there”—beyond the reach of urban, industrial society and in need of our vigilant protection.

Many popular songs in the English-speaking world employed the ideal of an untrammeled landscape in their lyrics, drawing contrasts between consumer society and the natural environment, which wanton lust for profit and progress threatened to erase. British bands produced images of environmental utopia with such songs as The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” (1967) and The Kinks’ “Apeman” (1970). Two popular songs from the United States focused on the conversion of natural paradise into commercial dystopia. “Big Yellow Taxi” (1970) by folk singer Joni Mitchell referenced DDT and mused about the commodification of nature as part of a more general process of transforming paradise into pavement, while “The Last Resort” (1976) by the Eagles told a tale of environmental exploitation and moral delusion.

Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi (1970)

Eagles, “The Last Resort” (1976)

Editor’s note: Thomas Kivi has created a created a playlist on Spotify for these songs:

Featured Image: Crowd at opening ceremony at the Woodstock Music Festival, 1969. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Kivi is a graduate student of U.S. history whose current research examines the interpersonal and institutional politics of ethnographic field-recording with the phonograph in 1930s/1940s Wisconsin. His love of music, his experiences as a lyrical songwriter, and his tendency toward philosophy ring out from the sounds, images, and text of this article. Website. Contact.

10 Responses

  1. Jeff Filipiak says:

    Great post!

    I have spent some time studying this topic myself (for research, teaching – and pleasure!), and I think you chose good themes.

    Work is an important theme to discuss; as a look at, for instance, Malone’s “Country Music USA” shows, there’s a lot to analyze there.

    I hadn’t thought of “jungle” as a main theme area, but I can see what can be learned by exploring the importance of that concept. (This book by UW-Madison’s own Craig Werner could help with that exploration:

    I might or might not chime in again later – my writings on John Denver and winter songs have led me to somewhat different conclusions on a few points. But wanted to offer some praise for the piece, before I forget: a helpful contribution to this conversation!

    (Note: another recent piece that may be of interest to readers of this piece is:

  2. Thomas Kivi says:

    Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for the praise and thoughtful feedback on the article! I did not know about “The Ecological Imagination” piece but I’m glad to just had the chance to read it. It bears some resemblance to idea of this piece. It’s a really thoughtful article, especially pointing out the Joni Mitchell shout-out to Rachel Carson with the reference to DDT in her song. The difference, I suppose, is that I argue that the ecological imagination emerges well before there was an ecology discourse–from within the lived, working-class environments (rivers, farm-fields, and mines) in the early-twentieth century.

    I’d like to hear more about your research! I also have a lot of respect for John Denver and was considering a number of Denver songs for the list (Bob Dylan is my all-time favorite though). My own historical research interests are focused on the ethnographic practice of field-recording with the phonograph, looking at (and listening to) a number field-recording projects undertaken by federal, state, and commercial institutions in the Midwest between the 1900s and the 1940s.

    Thanks again for your comment!



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