Sixties Folk Rock’s Greenest Songs: #35–31

The Top 40 Countdown Continues, with James Taylor, The Doors, Spirit, Creedence, and The Beatles

Ship of Fools, by Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516). Transferred from de.wikipedia to Commons by Ireas using CommonsHelper. Original uploader was Markus Mueller, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

(Part 7 of a seventeen-part series on Sixties folk rock and the rise of the modern environmental movement. Specifically, the series tracks the influence of environmentally themed songs from the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in late 1962 to the first Earth Day in the spring of 1970. You may find Part 6 especially helpful since there, in an introduction to the top 40 countdown, I lay out the criteria underlying my admittedly subjective selection process.)

35. James Taylor, “Sweet Baby James,” 1970

A carefully crafted exercise in nostalgia, “Sweet Baby James,” like many neo-pastoral songs of the era, associates the natural world with the mythic past and contrasts it with the modern world of the present. But in an interesting twist, Taylor suggests that we can choose beauty and all the other attractions of the natural world even in the modern world — and he suggests too that the modern world has its own attractions. The first verse seems to offer a quaint old tale out of America’s distant frontier past. It’s very much a scene from the western frontier, it seems, where a cowboy “works in the saddle and he sleeps in the canyons,” where “his horse and his cattle are his only companions.” But when he sits by the fire alone in the moonlight, he is “thinking about women and glasses of beer,” things he has no access to out on the range.

The second verse shifts the scene to the modern-day present and the East, to the Massachusetts Turnpike “from Stockbridge to Boston.” An early snow has rendered it a lovely scene: “the Berkshires seemed dreamlike on account of that frosting.” And just as the cowboy can sing of “moonlight ladies” while sitting around a fire, a driver on the Turnpike can sing “a song that they sing when they take to the highway,” or “to the sea,” or “to the sky.” In other words, even the modern-day highway traveler can live a life of romantic adventure. In both songs — the cowboy’s, the automobiler’s — the catchy chorus says “deep greens and blues are the colors I choose.” Those are the colors of the natural world, of forest and tree, of clean water and clear skies. Whether it’s on the western plains or the eastern hills, we can still find the peace and beauty of nature and we can “choose” it. And that’s worth singing about. Maybe over a beer.

34. The Doors, “Ship of Fools,” 1970

The Doors first sounded the call of ecological apocalypse in “When the Music’s Over” back in 1967, where Jim Morrison asks, “What have they done to the Earth? What have they done to our sister?” They return to the theme of apocalypse in the opening lines of “Ship of Fools,” but now it’s apparently with the recognition that what we have done to the Earth we are also doing to ourselves: “They human race was dying out / No one left to scream and shout.” The cause evidently is air pollution: “Smog will get you pretty soon.” But at the same time we are busy despoiling the atmosphere on our planet, we have “People walking on the moon.”

The “ship of fools” referenced in the title is the plan, led by a “Mr. Goodtrips,” to take us all on “a new ship” — the ship as microcosm of society motif — but “we’re not going home.” Morrison is referencing the fantasy that after we’re done using this planet up, we can sail into space and find a new one to inhabit. But The Doors suggest — perhaps echoing H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, and anticipating contemporary ecologists — that that would be a fool’s errand. Even if we were to find a suitable planet that could sustain life, we would fall prey to whatever bacteria and parasites that have evolved there. Because of course we would not have co-evolved along with the parasites in order to develop, through the processes of natural selection, any tolerance or resistance. Ship of Fools, indeed. But The Doors suggest too that perhaps we could try doing something more than just “Hope our little world will last.” Maybe we could actually try to improve conditions on this planet? Nah, that’s way too far-fetched.

33. Spirit, “Nature’s Way,” 1970

Spirit seemed to specialize in songs that are quite minimalistic in terms of lyrics, but musically often catchy and interesting. (Just listen to “Taurus” and then the opening of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” for evidence that Led Zep also seemed to find Spirit’s

music pretty interesting.) “Nature’s Way” is in this minimalistic vein, with a grand total of six lines repeated several times. The first verse goes, “It’s Nature’s way of telling you something’s wrong / It’s nature’s way of telling you in a song.” In the second verse nature’s way of telling us something consists of “summer breeze” and “dying trees.” In the chorus, we are told that “it” is nature’s way of “receiving you” and “retrieving you.” Notice that the “it” is not only unspecified, but that it seems to shift meaning. At times “it” seems to be things like dying trees telling us that something is wrong with nature. At other moments, “it” seems to be the things like a summer breeze that are ways we can be received or retrieved by nature — to be welcomed as part of nature or brought back to ourselves and nature.

Somehow, though, despite the imprecision of the pronoun reference and the lack of specificity in the song, it all works. We get the message, both messages, in the song. Note that the self-referential move of having nature tell us in a song, like the one Spirit is singing, means that the “it” also refers to the song itself. All this reminds me of Henry Thoreau saying that “A writer, a man writing, is the scribe of all nature. He is the corn and the grass and the atmosphere writing.” So, too, it seems, with a man (or woman) singing — it’s nature singing through us. And so all these environmental songs I’m writing about are nature’s way of receiving and retrieving us, and telling us something’s wrong.

32. Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Green River,” 1969

The title song of the Green River album revisits a theme from the previous album’s “Born on the Bayou” (from earlier in 1969) — a yearning to retreat from the modern world and return to a nostalgically recollected natural world from the speaker’s childhood. In “Born on the Bayou” the speaker recalls “runnin’ through the backwoods bare”; in “Green River” he wants to “go back down where cool water flow.” It’s a movement back in time to a place of fondly remembered pleasure and innocence. Among the vividly sketched “things I love” recited in effective sensory detail and punctuated by snappy guitar licks are a “log where catfish bite,” “walkin’ along the river road at night,” bullfrogs calling, a rope swing “hangin’ to the tree,” dragonflies flitting, and the speaker as a boy kicking his feet “way down the shallow water” and skipping a flat rock across the river. We’ve all been there, done that. And when we “find the world is mouldrin’” — from war, racism, corruption, pollution, crass materialism — when we are “lost,” we can “come on home to Green River.” Nature, then, is “home” and the site of purity and pleasure.

The psychologist R. Zajonc in his “mere exposure hypothesis” has made the case that simply exposing people to something — in this case an appreciation for the natural world — can be a persuasive rhetorical strategy. Notably, the memories of nature in “Green River” hark back to childhood, obliquely suggesting that the nature we had in the past is no longer available. The Green River of the song is actually a generic stand-in for John Fogerty’s favorite childhood stream, Putah Creek in California’s Sacramento Valley, a long way from the Louisiana bayou. Without making any overt commentary on environmental issues, the song reminds us that the attractions of the natural world can seem remote to us in adulthood — and in the modern world — but that going back to the natural world is to return home. That backwards step is a step in the right direction when progress has been taking you down a wrong path.

31. The Beatles, “Mother Nature’s Son,” 1968

Like much of the White Album (officially titled The Beatles), “Mother Nature’s Son” was a product of the Beatles’ stay with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India. One of the Maharishi’s lectures about nature inspired not only “Mother Nature’s Son” by Paul but also “Child of Nature” by John; perhaps John thought his song was too close in theme to “Mother Nature’s Son,” for it was never recorded. But he later used the melody for “Jealous Guy.”

“Mother Nature’s Son” echoes the situation of “Fool on the Hill,” focusing on a figure alone in nature — in this case sitting in a “field of grass” rather than atop a hill. But rather than his foolishness taking the form of “keeping perfectly still,” Mother Nature’s Son is “singing songs for everyone” or singing “a lazy song beneath the sun” to the “swaying daisies.” He’s listening as well, to the waters of a mountain stream making “the pretty sound of music as she flies.” The three simple three-line verses reinforce the message about the appealing simplicity of the natural world — in unspoken contrast to the complexity of the modern world. That was a theme that would very much become a part of Paul’s life going forward. While it is not true that he was “born a poor young country boy,” as the first line of “Mother Nature’s Son” has it, he became a country boy (albeit a wealthy one), eventually buying his own country retreat, a farm on the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland, and becoming active in the cause of animal welfare.

Work Cited

Zajonc, R. B. “Attitudinal Effects of Mere Exposure.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9.2, Part 2 (1968): 1–27.

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Ian Marshall

Ian Marshall

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Born at a very early age. Still busy being born. And now: The Old Folkie Talks of Tunes.