Noteworthy: a music column

By Peter Walters

Starting in the 1960s musicians began to incorporate environmental themes into their music. This corresponds with the birth of what we know as the modern environmental movement in the late 60s with books like Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and images in the media of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland catching on fire. In the 1970s, artists such as Neil Young and Marvin Gaye trumpeted the horn of environmental destruction with. In the 80s, bands like R.E.M. kept the conversation going. By the time the 90s had come around the environmental movement had grown immensely and the children who would grow up to be many of today’s musicians were eating up Captain Planet’s mantra of Reduce Reuse Recycle. The stars were then aligned for groups whose main messages include goals of environmental sustainability. Especially in recent years, the number of environmental musical acts has been steadily increasing. The Giving Tree Band, for example, formed in Yorkville, Illinois by brothers Todd and Eric Fink. The group uses a bevy of acoustic instruments including guitar, mandolin, double bass, dulcimer, harmonica drums and percussion. Their sound harkens back to the “live with the land” notions of traditional folk music but also ties in essences of alternative country and modern indie folk styles as well. What they are perhaps better known for are their green practices off the stage. Their latest album, which is slated for release this summer, was recorded at the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center in Baraboo, Wisconsin using nothing but solar energy. To get to the studio the band rode bikes 500 miles north from Illinois and camped during the recording process. The packaging for the CD uses 100 percent recyclable material (cardboard), album art printed in soy ink, and will be shrink wrapped in biodegradable corn cellulose. They are also planting ten trees to offset the carbon emissions of shipping and handling.

Much better known to Minnesotans and perhaps the rest of the nation is the brain child of Minneapolis native Craig Minowa. Cloud Cult is a much edgier, experimental indie rock troupe. They combine drums, guitar, cello, bass, trombone, synthesizers, visual art and forward lyrics to get their message across. Craig’s wife, Connie, paints on stage along with Scott West throughout the course of the show and at the end the paintings are auctioned off. Like their contemporaries from Illinois, Cloud Cult prefer to record their music independently and in a carbon neutral manner. Two years after Minowa founded the band, he established Earthology Records on his organic farm in Northern Minnesota. The studio is built from recycled plastic and reclaimed wood and is powered by wind power and geothermal power too. One of their more famous tunes is “Happy Hippo” off of their 2005 release “Advice From the Happy Hippopotamus”. A line that gets repeated throughout the song is “Hey, hey, my, my” and “It’s better to better to burn out than to fade away”. These are references to one of our original environmental activist musicians Neil Young.

Neil Young has always been a champion for the environment. He owns a retrofitted 1959 Lincoln Continental biodiesel plug-in hybrid. His 2003 concept album “Greendale” revolved around the story of a town that Young imagined. Sun Green, the protagonist of the album, calls for her community to save the planet for another day. The album includes images of fishermen coming home empty and carries a message of “You can make a difference, if you really try”. His latest album “Fork in the Road” came out a week after President Obama announced his bail out plan for the Detroit auto companies. This latest release is focused exclusively on environmental issues, and the state of the automobile in particular. Neil Young is an interesting example of environmentalism in music because he blends the love for the country of traditional folk music with a more modern environmental view.

An earlier and very different example of green music is Jim Nollman’s work with animals to create what he calls interspecies music. Nollman has made his life’s work artistic interaction with animals. He has recorded himself playing guitar and singing to deer, elk, wolves, whales, orcas, and even llamas. He is the founder of Interspecies which conducts studies on these very same artistic interactions with animals. On the organization’s web site you can listen to the recordings that Nollman has made over the past years for free. I can’t describe how fascinating it is to hear an orca sing along to an electric guitar. Through putting speakers and microphones in the water, Nollman is able to capture the entire human-animal interaction. His most recent project has involves making music with beluga whales in Russia in order to protect the few of them that are left. It really is a great way of showing people that animals can be just as creative as us.

Overall, I would say the general trend has been a large effort to reduce the environmental impact of tours and festivals. At Lollapalooza this past summer, Radiohead requested that fans take the train. The festival also offered rewards to people who turned in twenty or more cups. I think that for a movement of any sort, anything with large goals, music can be a powerful tool for conveying the message. It will be interesting to see what direction environmentalism in music takes next. Perhaps an eco-terrorist anarcho-punk movement?