A Playlist for Earth Day

For Earth Day 2021, I polled our staff for music that they associate with nature or the environment. Here are their picks, and why they think we should listen. Enjoy, and let us know in the comments what you’d recommend!

Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car”

This is a song that I listened to in Walkman days. It was a constant on my mixtape as I walked around New York City, and became inextricably linked with the sights and rhythms of the city. When I walk along the streets of New York now, or wish I were, in covid times, I hear Tracy Chapman singing… – Anne Adams, Senior Music Cataloger

Aaron Copland, “Nature, the gentlest mother,” from Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson

The opening piece in this beautiful song cycle. Listen because it’s Emily Dickinson’s words and the composer at the piano. – Peter Laurence, Librarian for Recorded Sound and Media

Thierry Pécou, L’Oiseau innumerable

I have been working from home for over a year, making sporadic and very brief visits to the Music Library but otherwise installed at an improvised standing desk (my dresser). Sometimes my apartment is noisy with the happy chaos of family life. When the pod convenes elsewhere, though, it is quiet. It is then I am reminded that I am never really alone as there are many birds in my neighbourhood, far more than I’d noticed before the pandemic. Their songs change as the day progresses, from the gentle dawn chorus to the merry chirps at lunchtime, and a few hoots from the local confused owl mid-afternoon. There are woodpeckers, cardinals, blue jays and of course chickadees. – Christina Linklater, Keeper of the Isham Memorial Library and Houghton Music Cataloger

Bob Thiele and George David Weiss, “What a Wonderful World” (Original spoken intro version)

It’s the great Louis Armstrong. It’s a classic, and ALWAYS brings a tear to the eye. – Rhona Freeman, Library Assistant, Archive of World Music

Gabriel Faure, “Paradis,” from La chanson d’Eve

To me this song is the first rays of dawn; a pristine, untouched earth; burgeoning spring growth; all the beauty that can be found on this globe. – Anne Adams

Sparks, “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth” (1974)    

During the early years of mainstream environmentalism, the American group Sparks (far more appreciated in the UK than in their homeland) released this baroque pop piece that warns of the dangers of not showing reverence and care for the planet. – Josh Kantor, Assistant Keeper, Isham Memorial Library

Antonín Dvořák, “Song to the Moon,” from Rusalka

I know it’s Earth Day and not Moon Day but the Moon is technically part of nature. This is the only thing I can think of right now. Wherever you go in the world and whatever else is going on in your life, you can look up at night and watch the Moon getting bigger and smaller and bigger again as it moves through the sky. It gives us the tides and lights our way at night. The Sun goes away at night, but the Moon is there during the day if you look for it. If you’re on one side of the world and someone you love is on another, you can both share the Moon. – Sarah Barton, Circulation Supervisor

Pauline Oliveros, Stuart Dempster, and Panaiotis, Deep Listening

As I think about how music intersects with Earth Day, the concept of “deep listening” as coined by Pauline Oliveros comes to mind. Deep listening is based on the principles of meditation, the art of listening, and responding to environmental conditions when combined with sound created by performers. This recording is the result of descending 14 feet into an underground cistern in Port Townsend, Washington while performing minimal live electronics, vocals, trombone and accordion as ambient drones. – Liz Berndt-Morris, Reference and Research Services Librarian

Carole King, “I Feel the Earth Move”

Although the references to the earth in this song are metaphors for a romantic relationship, I feel it applies to the state of the world today, socially and environmentally. Sometimes when the weather starts to “mellow” as in the upcoming month of May, instead of simply enjoying it, I am reminded of the stark contrast compared with the crises of the world. As the earth moves and warms and the sky tumbles down around us, nature reminds us of what we stand to lose. – Joe Kinzer, Senior Curatorial Assistant, Archive of World Music

John Harbison, The Natural World. Prelude

This movement of “The Natural World” reminds of me of the kinds of patterns of sound I hear when taking walks around Horn Pond– Sandi-Jo Malmon, Librarian for Collection Development and Interim Richard F. French Librarian

Marvin Gaye, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” (1971)

Marvin Gaye’s album What’s Going On was named by Rolling Stone magazine in 2020 as “the greatest album of all time.” At the time of its release 50 years ago, it was an immensely innovative effort to fuse Gaye’s impeccable R&B arrangements with pointed contemporary social protest lyrics, all without compromising commercial viability. Though some lyrical themes on the album such as the injustices of poverty, war, and police brutality had previously been explored by other composers in sporadic fashion, What’s Going On was the first popular LP to address such topics extensively, and the album’s second single, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” released one year after the inaugural Earth Day, was the first hit song to frame the urgent need for cleaner air and cleaner water as an issue of racial justice. – Josh Kantor

John Luther Adams, Lines Made By Walking

After a year+ of travelling the neighborhood on foot while missing the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, I enjoy the fluid grandeur of this three-movement string quartet, performed by the JACK Quartet: up, around, and back down the mountains. – Kerry Masteller, Reference and Digital Program Librarian

Raffi, “Big Beautiful Planet”  

For little ones—and NOT-so-little ones—the beloved children’s entertainer, Raffi, sings this wonderful song at a live concert.  There are other URLs for it, but this one is Raffi, live. – Rhona Freeman

Liza Lim, How Forests Think: IV. The Trees

The forest is a place I feel safe and one that is always evolving—we must preserve them! Liza Lim bases this composition on the work of anthropologist Eduardo Kohn, who writes about forest ecologies. It is precisely what is interesting about listening to this movement. – Sandi-Jo Malmon

XTC, “Summer’s Cauldron”

The opening sounds of crickets, birds and bees signal this is no ordinary brilliant pop song. – Peter Laurence

Tom Lehrer, “Pollution”

Now in his 90’s, the satirical songwriter (and mathematics professor!) Tom Lehrer wrote “Pollution” in 1965. Pre-Earth Day. – Rhona Freeman

Lei Liang, A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams

This work is inspired by a Chinese painting by legendary artist Huang Binhong. Liang composed the music using unique sources and methods to imply that natural heritage is danger, and cultural heritage is as well. He writes, “The world we live in today is dangerous. Our very existence is threatened by global warming, which is causing violent disruptions to the living things on our planet and being made worse by human irresponsibility.” We must be alerted! Liang won the 2021 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for this work; view his acceptance speech here– Lingwei Qiu, Library Assistant for Print Music

Michael Friedman, The Great Immensity

The late composer/lyricist, Michael Friedman, wrote an Off-Broadway musical titled The Great Immensity,  dubbed a “thriller”, and centering on climate change. Here are 2 songs from it: “We Are All Panamanian” and “Climate Change Suite: Stockholm 1972, Rio 1992, Kyoto 1997, Copenhagen 2009, Warsaw 2013.” All the songs are really something! – Rhona Freeman

Olivier Messiaen, Le Merle noir

Last spring, the birdsong seemed particularly vigourous, possibly because I’d never spent so much time here, ready to listen for it. All year I have found myself reminiscing almost daily about the pleasure of discovering, at university, the music of Olivier Messiaen, a composer and ornithologist who wove birdsong into his works. “What I love about Messiaen,” my classmate Brigitte once said, “is how the birds don’t really sound like birds. You know, like, the piece is called Le merle noir and it’s all, BLAP BLAP.” I know, Brigitte, I know. And yet, who’s to say what birds sound like to other people? Perhaps the blackbird really did sound sort of blappy to Messiaen. Or could he be trying to nudge us to recall that birds, however beautiful and ethereal, are technically flying dinosaurs. It’s subjective, like everything about nature and the world. It’s in how you live and hear and remember it. I miss the library (and other adults) terribly but I’ll miss my bird companions. – Christina Linklater

Deborah Silverstein, “Draglines”

Performed here by the New Harmony Sisterhood Band, this song responds to the devastation of livelihoods and landscape caused by Appalachian strip mining. (I first learned it from the Reel World String Band’s version on Rounder Records compilation They’ll Never Keep Us Down: Women’s Coal Mining Songs, and highly recommend the entire album.) – Kerry Masteller

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, “The Hills Are Alive,” from The Sound of Music

For many the song evokes the images of glorious mountain tops and powerful reminders of the ways in which the earth sings to its occupants. Take a minute to listen and bask in the hope of pristine mountain tops! – Patricia O’Brien, Administrative Coordinator

Happy Earth Day, everyone!

6 Comments

  1. Great list! How about Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell?

  2. This is a wonderful list, and I’ll definitely listen to some of those that are unfamiliar to me. My additions would be Frederick Delius’ “On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring” and his Intermezzo from “Fennimore and Gerda” (the pinnacle of English pastoralism); and Benjamin Britten’s Spring Symphony, whose choral finale sounds like the whole universe waltzing.

  3. Also perhaps the Pixies, “Monkey Goes to Heaven”.

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