GETTING ONSIDE: A rally in Toronto outside the first debate of the 2019 federal election campaign. Young protesters urged party leaders to support a Green New Deal for Canada, and chanted: “No more coal, no more oil, keep the carbon in the soil!” See our-time.ca. PHOTO by H.G. Watson via The National Observer
“Songs and Music of the Climate Action Movement”: While planning to take part in the upcoming Climate Strike, a week-long youth-led event for action on the climate crisis, I was excited to see this page on the website of The Journal of Music. I came upon it just after re-hearing the memorable phrase “Every revolution needs a soundtrack.”
Activism needs music. As part of my ongoing research on the parallels between the climate crisis and World War II—a fight for life that has lessons for us in our battle for the planet—I’d just been listening to policy analyst Seth Klein speak on a Politicoast.ca podcast about mobilizing for the climate emergency. “World War II had a soundtrack,” Mr. Klein observed in that conversation. And he was so right. There were stirring motivational pieces like “We Must All Stick Together,” and romantic tunes like “We’ll Meet Again.” Most adults knew those songs and could join in on choruses, gaining strength and commitment from the experience.
David Suzuki was all over this years ago, when he organized a Playlist for the Planet song collection from Canadian musicians. On that 2011 project, Bruce Cockburn sings “If a Tree Falls,” Tanya Tagaq sings “Construction,” and Randy Bachman sings “We Gotta Change.”
Since then, many writers and artists are highlighting the need for activist music for our time. One UK duo called Jimmy and Sid have issued a “call to arms” for more folk singers to write melodies and lyrics to stir ecological hearts. One blogger nominated his “Top 8 Songs about Climate Change.” Creative fans are contributing too, as with Youtuber DaJein’s video remix of a speech by Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. Even scholars are getting into it: for a Masters in Environmental Studies, Jennifer Publicover interviewed musician-activists to understand music as a tool for environmental education and advocacy.
I welcome these bold approaches. But what we especially need are songs we can sing along with. Because the most effective activist songs invite participation. They have easy-to-learn singable choruses, suitable for any voice. They bring people together and build community and resolve. One stirring example is “We Don’t Want Your Pipeline,” written by legendary British Columbia folk musician Bob Bossin. Watch the video and you’ll see.
For the activist soul, it’s a soaring experience to raise your voice with others and belt out a strong chorus. You get that feeling with “We Shall Overcome,” the gospel tune that became an anthem of the American civil rights movement. You get it with “You Can’t Scare Me, I’m Stickin’ to the Union.” And from songs like “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “The Times They are a-Changing,” “Give Peace a Chance,” and “Which Side Are You On?”
That very question was emblazoned on a banner at one recent Toronto protest, and it’s apt. As I’m sure these activists know, the point isn’t about dividing people into good guys and bad guys. It’s about getting us all onside with urgent action befitting the climate emergency. I hope these young people also know that there’s a rousing song to go along with the question. So many of these songs from past decades can be repurposed for today.
If you’re a songwriter, consider stepping up. And while you’re at it, please give us a strong and singable chorus.
Hope to see you at one of 2,500+ youth-led events planned in 117 countries for the Global Climate Strike starting Sept. 20. Find out more about how to participate here.