Prose for the Planet

Douglas Brinkley lecture examines how protest music helped shape the environmental movement.

Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got ’till it’s gone / They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

The iconic lyrics from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” which was released in April 1970—the same month that the first Earth Day Celebration was held—captured the angst and lament many artists and intellectuals were feeling about the existential threats facing the planet during the Long Sixties (1960–1973), making it one of the first environmental anthems.

In his talk “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology): Long Sixties Protest Music and the Earth Day Revolution,” New York Times best-selling author and acclaimed presidential historian Douglas Brinkley highlighted music’s integral and enduring role in the environmental movement in the U.S. He explained that while the first two waves of environmental movements in the U.S. were ushered in under presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the third grew out of a cultural movement sparked largely by writers and artists, such as Mitchell, after Rachel Carson’s anti-DDT book, “Silent Spring,” galvanized a generation upon its release in 1962.

“Suddenly the groundswell of saving the environment kicked in and music—and artists—became a huge part,” Brinkley said.

Brinkley’s talk, held in April, was the inaugural President’s Lecture on Music History and Contemporary America. Hosted by the Bruce Springsteen Archives and Center for American Music, the new series “showcases the Center’s mission to educate and inspire future generations to understand the diverse influences in American music, and appreciate its power as a force for change,” according to Monmouth University President and BSACAM Board of Directors Chair Patrick F. Leahy.

Click here to watch Brinkley’s full lecture.