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Sunday, March 12, 2023

"Green Pop": Songs of the Earth - From Woody Guthrie to Neil Young | Pop Matters

"This Machine Kills Fascists"
Woody Guthrie
 (Click photo to enlarge)


An interesting essay on how American folk songs of the Earth, from Woody Guthrie to Neil Young, tilled the soil for the rise of ‘Green Pop’.

From "Songs of the Earth: Woody Guthrie to Neil Young | Pop Matters b

We could, of course, trace ‘Green Pop’ back through eras and cultures, but here I’m concentrating on the importance of folk music in the post-war years. 

The rise of environmental awareness among folksingers was particularly significant because it went hand in hand with the growing impact of the science of ecology. 

There was a folk revival in the US in the 1950s, led by groups such as the Weavers and the Kingston Trio, but ‘folk’ didn’t become generally identified with ‘protest’ until the 1960s: protest against not only racial oppression and the Vietnam War, but also against the damage being done to the natural world. That said, Woody Guthrie provided a model for this kind of music in the 1940s. 

With “Pastures of Plenty” (1941), Guthrie addresses one of the major environmental disasters to emerge in the 1930s: the Dust Bowl. Caused by a policy of aggressive exploitation of the land, it meant huge numbers of people had to escape the drought and dust storms that blighted several states, most notably Oklahoma. These ‘Dust Bowl migrants’ travelled westwards to California for work. Guthrie sings in sympathy and solidarity with these ‘Okies’.

The fate of the working class is seen as inseparable from the fate of the land itself.  


Neil Young – “After the Goldrush” (1970)

The lyrics of “After the Goldrush” present a curious narrative.

It is probably Neil Young’s most cryptic composition. The title suggests that it takes place in mid-19th centuryAmerica, focussing on the disappointment felt by those who sought quick wealth. However, the singer’s dream drifts from a jousting event in medieval England to contemporary warfare, possibly involving nuclear weapons, and so to a science fiction scenario in which the destruction of Mother Nature necessitates the transfer of its ‘seed’ to a ‘new home in the sun’. We are not sure whether the ‘chosen ones’ are the elite, able to escape the consequences of the very state that they have brought about, or whether they are heroic figures trying to save nature. Does the singer remain in ‘a burned-out basement’, waiting for orders that will never come?

Whatever we decide about the meaning of “After the Goldrush”, it is certainly the song’s refrain that hit home: ‘Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s’. That this message continues to matter to Young is indicated by the fact that in more recent performances, he changes ‘1970s’ to ‘21st century’.

[ed: other Neil Young songs analyzed include:

  • “Are There Any More Real Cowboys?” (1985)
  • “Mother Earth” (1990; 2016)
  • “Be the Rain”, from Greendale (2003)
  • “Green Is Blue” (2019)
  • “Who’s Gonna Stand Up (For the Earth)?” (2014) ]


We’ve been tracing the link between folk music and what I’m calling ‘Green Pop’, taking in the work of Guthrie, Seeger & co. If anyone could be said to have traced this journey within his career, it is surely Neil Young. I’ve known some people to dismiss his ecological work as fashionable and attitudinizing. Still, the evidence is that he has been entirely consistent in his resistance to agribusiness, to ‘big oil’, and to corporate influence.
From Woody Guthrie to Neil Young, we can trace a serious and consistent commitment to the most important cause of our era. We are still learning from the songwriters discussed; whatever form “Green Pop” might take, the legacy of those folk roots will endure.

More on eco, green Neil Young music @ The Inconvenient Truth of  Neil Young's Greendale.

"Be The Rain"
Neil Young and "Sun Green"

Greendale at Radio City Music Hall, New York City - March 18, 2004

(note Neil's feet airborne!)
photo by thrasher

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At 3/12/2023 10:03:00 PM, Blogger wsanjose01 said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 3/14/2023 02:23:00 AM, Blogger Alan said...

@ Thrasher : Green (folk) Pop? That sounds like Neil, minus the Pop part!

Neil Young has my respect for his Environmental Activism. His support of the Standing Rock Sioux along w Willie was some comfort in that time of horrible abuse of power by the bully cops, with no badge #’s visible. Obama and Trump had the same game plan: Let the militarized cops do whatever they want to the Natives. And the cops blinded one protester, almost severed the arm of another woman. Plastic bullets, & flash bang grenades thrown into a crowd of peaceful protesters(!!!).

NY has been an Environmental and social Activist forever. He’s done countless benefit shows, probably more than any other musician.

@ Dan : World Record is growing on me quite a bit. I agree with your take on this masterpiece!

Your Brother, Alan In Seattle

At 3/14/2023 11:59:00 AM, Blogger Abner Snopes said...

I just returned home from a long work trip to El Paso and had time in the hotel room to stew and become anxious (I hate hotels). I heard on the television that "people don't want to watch news about the environment."

No, they want to hear about Jonny Depp or whatever, Donald Trump hush money.

Neil Young is a fine human being. I am proud to be a fan.

At 3/14/2023 04:14:00 PM, Blogger Dan Swan said...

@ Alan : good to hear that World Record is soaking in. I brilliant album indeed.

@ Abner : I completely understand the Hotel thing. Never enjoyed it myself, and to quote a NY song; ‘People Want To Hear About Love’, from The Monsanto Years. In other words……Don’t be telling people what they need to know, tell them what they want to hear.

Peace 🙏


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