Where are the Elegies to the World’s Troubled Landscapes?

Travel Blog  •  Joanna Kakissis  •  03.04.09 | 4:02 PM ET

Photo by macnolete via Flickr (Creative Commons).

The Eagles were on to something in 1976, when they lamented the pillaging of the western American landscape in “The Last Resort.” As eco-awareness of global warming makes major headlines, and movie stars and scientists link hands to march against coal-fired power plants, I wonder: Where are the music videos? The equivalent of “We Are The World,” climate-change edition? Or at least a few elegies to the troubled landscapes of our world?

Then I came across “Uyan (Wake Up),” a song about the ravages of environmental irresponsibility released late last year by hunky Turkish pop star Tarkan and baglama viruoso Orhan Gencebay. It’s a fabulous tune, brimming with eastern Mediterranean soul and accompanied by a video (see below) featuring the sexier-than-thou Tarkan and the comfortably weathered Gencebay jamming in a cracked and desiccated land—likely a reference to the fact that great swathes of Turkey are in danger of desertification.

So, inspired by Tarkan and Orhan Gencebay, I compiled a short list of place-evoking environmental songs. I’d love to hear your picks—and if you think eco-songs can save fragile lands, or at least get people thinking that they should stop abusing them.

Uyan (Wake Up)

Tarkan and Orhan Gencebay
The 36-year-old Tarkan released this song last fall to publicly oppose the proposed Ilisu Dam in southeastern Turkey. The dam is expected to submerge the town of Hasankeyf, flooding historic ruins and displacing around 50,000 people. “Uyan” offers a plea for eco-justice as well as as a large-scale awareness of global warming. “Our place, our homeland, our earth, eternally vanishing,” Tarkan and Gencebay sing. “Our home, our nest, our only hearth, going from the hand.” (Translated lyrics care of Jennifer Hattam)


Midnight Oil
This brilliant Australian band is the mother lode for powerful environmental songs, especially the 1990 album Blue Sky Mining. From that album, I chose “Antarctica,” described as “the one place left in the world, where the water’s pure and clean.”


John Prine
Here’s a lovely ode to Prine’s sweet childhood in western Kentucky, a region later polluted by coal mining. “Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County, down by the Green River where Paradise lay,” Prine croons in this song from his self-titled 1971 album. “Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking. Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.” (Note: Prine doesn’t begin singing until about halfway through the video, which also features some commentary and scenes from his hometown.)

The Last Resort

The Eagles
The quintessential song-story about how the American West was lost to greed and environmental degradation. Sing it and weep.


Youssou N’Dour
The brilliant Senegalese singer, songwriter and activist released this affecting song in 1990 to protest rich Western nations dumping toxic waste in poor African countries. I couldn’t find a video, but you can listen to the song via YouTube and be reminded that the illegal dumping continues today in one of the world’s most naturally beautiful ecosystems.

Joanna Kakissis's writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, among other publications. A contributor to the World Hum blog, she's currently a Ted Scripps fellow in environmental journalism at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

5 Comments for Where are the Elegies to the World’s Troubled Landscapes?

Chris Welsch 03.04.09 | 8:18 PM ET

“Hawaii 78” by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole is a heartbreaker:

“Could you just imagine if they came back
and saw traffic lights and railroad tracks
How would they feel about this modern city life
Tears would come from each others eyes as
they would stop to realize
that our land is in great, great danger now”

Michael Yessis 03.04.09 | 8:29 PM ET

Great post, Joanna.

Off the top of my head I’d add to the list REM’s “Cuyahoga,” inspired in part by the burning of the Cuyahoga River:


According to Wikipedia, Randy Newman and a band called Adam Again also have songs about the burning of the river.


Jim Benning 03.05.09 | 11:32 AM ET

I love the list, Joanna.

I vote for Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”:


Joanna 03.05.09 | 1:21 PM ET

I was going to include “Planet Earth” by Duran Duran, but then I wondered if that song might actually be the band’s ode to aliens.

But here’s a big one I missed, and from one of my favorite singers ever!!!

“We Almost Lost Detroit” by Gil Scott-Heron

Just thirty miles from Detroit
stands a giant power station.
It ticks each night as the city sleeps
seconds from annihilation,
But no one stopped to think about the people
or how they would survive,
and we almost lost Detroit
this time.

Check it out here:

Andy Bechtel 03.05.09 | 2:38 PM ET

Cool list!

Three more from R.E.M. to consider: “I Remember California,” “Fall On Me” and “Until the Day Is Done,” the latter being used for an environmental special on CNN last year.

Also, “My City Was Gone” by the Pretenders.

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