“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” The passing of Pete Seeger in January made many nostalgic for the era when `topical songs’ boldly took on social issues. Seeger was most famously associated with the Civil Rights struggle of the early Sixties and the anti-war movement which followed. He also sang about environmental concerns, particularly the pollution of his beloved Hudson River. That wasn’t unprecedented: Seeger’s mentor, Woody Guthrie, crafted an album’s worth of Dust Bowl Ballads in 1940, songs which vividly depict the human toll taken by a man-made environmental disaster. Today, as California grapples with crippling drought and the east reels in the wake of winter ice and England floods, it’s clear that climate change is happening faster than once predicted, and it’s happening everywhere. Will there be any new songs about it when Earth Day rolls around on April 22nd? Where have all the topical songwriters gone?
Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads may be the most famous songs with an environmental subtext, but they aren’t alone: During the Cold War, the American-Soviet `mutual assured destruction’ standoff inspired a number of anti-bomb songs warning of a future unlivable world. Malvina Reynolds’ “What Have They Done to the Rain” and Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” were emblematic, but folkies weren’t alone in tackling the `nuclear winter’ topic. Before becoming famous for a different sort of topical song (“Take This Job and Shove It”), country singer Johnny Paycheck depicted a post-nuclear Apocalypse in “The Cave.”
Today’s equivalent of `nuclear winter’ is the world in which we all increasingly live, dramatically altered by a climate rapidly changing due to our actions. There’s no quick fix and there’s no easy target to blame, so it’s no simple subject for topical songwriters. But as Guthrie did with the Dust Bowl, it can be localized and personalized. Is no one up to the task? I took a stab at it last year with a song you’ll find on YouTube called “Last Call.” But I’m not really a songwriter, and urge those who are to put their talent to work in service of a concern at least as urgent as any addressed by Pete Seeger.
On a very different note, an era ended in February with the final broadcast of Chuck Cecil’s `Swingin’ Years’ on KJazz in Long Beach. Cecil launched his epic celebration of the big band era in 1956, and it once aired on over 300 stations nationwide! No wonder: Listeners were offered the gifts of Cecil’s encyclopedic knowledge of the era’s music and vast library of both hits and rare vintage `live’ broadcasts. Even late-comers to the swing ball like me caught Cecil’s infectious enthusiasm for it. Anyone with radio experience was awed by the professionalism and production skills that went into eight weekly hours of entertaining excellence. I join many in thanking Chuck for decades of radio that was absolutely the best of its kind. I hope to continue enjoying his `Swingin’ Years’ streaming online at WPPB.