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Environmental Songs

"Living on Earth" Interview of Singer-Songwriter Fred Small

The following transcript is reprinted here by permission from the National Public Radio series, Living on Earth.

In this transcript, excerpted from the April 18, 1997 edition of the radio program, Living on Earth staff Steve Curwood interviews singer-songwriter Fred Small.

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Most movements for social change have anthems, songs that are synonymous with the passions of people struggling to improve their lives and perhaps change the world in the process. Go to a union rally, for example, and you will surely hear "Solidarity Forever." Join a march for integration and "We Shall Overcome" will mark your time. But what about the environmental movement? What is its anthem? My next guest was hard-pressed to come up with one, but he offers the following.

SMALL: (strumming guitar) Out of the fire and the molten stone came the water mother ocean home. Till we walked, masters of the land, brought the fire under our command. Thought the river would never go slack. Thought the spring would always come back. Blew our life savings for a handful of change. Steal the future from our children, call it capital gains. Not for the great green Earth. For the ancient seas of our birth. For the patient trees that give us breath. For the people of every land. From the Ganges to the Rio Grande, we shall defend the great green Earth.

CURWOOD: That's Fred Small and the first verse of "The Great Green Earth," a song that Fred wrote to mark the 25th anniversary of Earth Day. Fred is a former environmental lawyer who is now studying to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. But as a longtime singer/songwriter, his guitar is never too far from his side. Fred, thanks for coming by today.

SMALL: Always a pleasure, Steve.

CURWOOD: Fred, you have a theory about why an anthem for the environmental movement has failed to emerge. I mean, the movement has certainly been around for a long enough time.

SMALL: I'd say there are a couple of reasons, Steve. One is that I think we've changed as a society since the heyday of the labor and civil rights movements. Those were more participatory times. The culture that we had was what we created. Now we tend to consume it through CDs or on the radio or MTV, and we're not as creative as we used to be. The other thing is, I think that the environmental movement itself tends to be, not exclusively but tends to be, a middle class movement. So middle class folks are better at writing their members of Congress than in being in the streets demonstrating. They're less in your face, more polite, and they don't -- they don't sing as much.

CURWOOD: There is a sort of progenitor for today's environmental movement in the anti-nuclear movement and those folks got out and marched and sang, right?

SMALL: Absolutely. I think because people felt threatened in their homes, in the places that they lived. They felt a connection to the land, and here was a very immediate and concrete threat. A lot of tremendous singing in that movement, especially the Seabrook nuclear power plant and the Clamshell Alliance. A lot of songs sung there, and also in and on the way to jail as people were carted off after doing civil disobedience.

CURWOOD: You got a song for us?

SMALL: Yeah. This is an adaptation of a traditional song that was put together by Charlie King, called "Acres of Clams. " I'll just sing the first verse and chorus. (Strums guitar, sings) I've lived all my life in this country. I love every flower and tree. I expect to live here till I'm 90, it's the nukes that must go and not me. It's the nukes that must go and not me. It's the nukes that must go and not me. I expect to live here till I'm 90, it's the nukes that must go and not me.

CURWOOD: Whoa. Well, I'm going to get out there and march right now.

SMALL: Exactly.

CURWOOD: I guess with something like that. I think, though, more songs associated with the environmental movement or with environmental themes as being very reflective about taking note of what's happening to the planet.
I'm wondering if there's one of these that comes to mind for you, too.

SMALL: Well, the very first environmental song that I learned, I learned as a boy at the time when nuclear testing, weapons testing, was still taking place in the atmosphere before the treaties that prohibited that. And Malvina Reynolds wrote an extraordinary song that some folks may remember from Joan Baez singing and many others, called "What Have They Done To The Rain?" (Strums guitar, sings) Just a little rain falling all around. The grass lifts its head to the heavenly sound. Just a little rain. Just a little rain. What have they done to the rain? Just a little boy standing in the rain. The gentle rain that falls for years. But the grass is gone, the boy disappears. And the rain keeps falling like helpless tears. What have they done to the rain? What have they done to the rain?

CURWOOD: Mm, such a pretty song. What about something that speaks to today's problem with pollution?

SMALL: Well, we have to talk of course about the Hudson River Slew Clearwater and all the wonderful music that's come out of that. That's a full-scale working replica of a Hudson River sloop that Pete Seeger and a lot of other good folks helped get started in the late 60s. It does environmental education and a lot of music. This is a song that Pete wrote for the Hudson River, where he lives. I'll just sing you the chorus. (Strums guitar, sings) Sailing down my dirty stream. Still I love it, and I'll keep the dream. That one day, oh maybe not this year, my Hudson River will once again run clear.

CURWOOD: That's quite a stride to it. It kind of reminds you of Woody Guthrie. I guess Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie spent a lot of time together.

SMALL: They go back a long way, and of course in folk music we all borrow from one another. You can hear Woody in Pete. You can hear Pete in me. It's kind of like ecology.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) I guess so. And speaking of Woody Guthrie, he penned "This Land Is Your Land," which I think is perhaps the movement's most recognizable song.

SMALL: Absolutely. Great song and used by many movements.

CURWOOD: Can we hear it?

SMALL: Here we go. (Sings; strums guitar) As I went walking that ribbon of highway, I saw above me that endless skyway. I saw below me the golden valley. This land was made for you and me. (Speaks) Sing it with me, Steve.

CURWOOD and SMALL together (in harmony): This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York island. >From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters. This land was made for you and me.

SMALL: Sing along with Steve Curwood on Living on Earth.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) And Fred Small. Fred, I can't help but notice when you brought your guitar over this morning, you have backpack straps on it. And you have your bike helmet.

SMALL: That's true. I bicycled over. I don't have a car; I gave it up years ago. Because I find it simplifies my life, it keeps me happier. I get less frustrated. I'm more punctual, actually, because I plan ahead. It's actually an improvement in my lifestyle.

CURWOOD: Well, Fred, thanks so much for stopping by and sharing these songs with us.

SMALL: You bet. Thanks for asking me.

CURWOOD: Fred Small is a singer/songwriter, a former environmental lawyer, and now a Divinity School student who lives in the Boston area. But before we go, Fred, I'd like you to take us out with your song about simple living.

SMALL: All right, here goes. (Strums guitar, sings) Too many words. Too many sounds. Too many attractions turn me around. Too many miles in a chrome cocoon. I never get anywhere. I can't see the moon. Too many commercials. Too many lies. Too many celebrities I don't recognize. Too many brand names. Too many magazines. I got so much sensation I can't feel a thing. Too much work with nothing to do. Too many dreams never come true. Too much hurting without a second glance. Too much desperation they call romance. Simple. Living. Got to get to simple -- living. Simple living. Simple -- simply living.

CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Julia Madeson, Susan Shepherd, Liz Lempert, George Homsy, and Peter Shaw. Our senior producer is Chris Ballman. Peter Thomson heads our western bureau. We also had help from Colin Studds and Jesse Wegman. Our program is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with WBUR Boston, and Harvard University. Our engineers are Walter Dickson at WBUR and Jeff Martini at Harvard. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm, makers of pure all-natural organic yogurts and ice cream. 1-800-PRO-COWS for Stonyfield's Moosletter; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental economics.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

Comments? Suggestions? Living on Earth wants to hear from you! Email us at, or call our listener line (1-800-218-9988). Our mailing address is P.O. Box 380639, Cambridge, MA 02238-0639.

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Last update: September 5, 1997