Brutal heatwaves and forest fires, species extinction and biodiversity loss, melting ice caps and rising sea levels. Every week it seems new and terrible environmental records are being set.
Staving off the worst impacts of this reality is one of the defining challenges of our time. I have committed the last 15 years of my life to addressing this as part of the environmental movement. From policy meetings in 10 Downing Street and direct action, to closing coal-fired power stations, I have tried to drive change through any and all means.
I also have a great love for traditionalmusic and perform as one half of a folk duo with Sid Goldsmith. Until recently, my professional and musical life were unrelated.
But a few years ago, Sid and I were performing at a folk festival. The gig came after a busy week working on a major announcement that put an end date on coal-fired power in the UK; a development that would cut 20% of the UK’s carbon emissions. And yet we were singing traditional songs about past wars, lost loves and everyday life for people living in the England of old. Sid – who had worked in organic horticulture and struggled against a farming system heavily weighted towards large-scale interests – and I suddenly had a sense that our music was not direct enough in tackling these important issues.
We started to wonder whether folk musicians could – and should – do more to reflect on the modern world and the political developments that define our generation’s lives. The environmental movement needed a stronger cultural voice and songs that were rallying cries to help the cause.
Folk music can be a powerful political tool. Folk singers have played a critical role in many social and political movements – from Dick Gaughan in the miners’ strike to James Connolly’s fight for Irish independence, or Pete Seeger’s contributions to the civil rights movement in the US. Folksongs have galvanised activists and helped spread a message of hope: we shall overcome.
There is something unique about the form of a folksong that lends itself to stirring resistance and hope. Perhaps it is its participatory nature. Many of the classic political folksongs, such as If I Had a Hammer, are inspired by a tradition of work songs that are designed to be sung together and passed down the generations. And the sharing of songs can help unify people around a joint purpose. As James Connolly wrote in 1907: “Until a movement is marked by the joyous, defiant, singing of revolutionary songs, it lacks one of the most distinctive marks of a popular revolutionary movement, it is the dogma of a few, and not the faith of the multitude.”
So why doesn’t folk play a larger part in environmentalism? There is wonderful and powerful music already out there; Karine Polwart and Nancy Kerr are among the artists writing environmental material. And there’s a fascinating new project, Songhive, that highlights the plight of Britain’s native bees. But much more can be done to poetically explore the environmental challenges we face as a species, the politics that underpin the damage we are doing and how as humans we are responding.
Sid and I address these issues in our music. Our version of John Conolly’s 2004 song The Last Ploughshare speaks of the damage we are doing to the natural world. Our interpretation of Harvest Gypsies, a Boo Hewerdine song, is about the migration of agricultural workers across depression-era America as they escaped the dust bowls caused by damaging farming practices. These practices are still in use and the parallels between those American workers and the future movement of people across the globe as our climate changes are striking. We draw out these parallels and engage in a discussion with the audience about what we can do to address the problem. Our merchandise table often serves as more of a stage for debating soil erosion than for selling CDs!
Sometimes we are less direct. Our song The Tide explores how the great tide of people that washes in and out of London each day is a far more significant rhythm for many of us than the tidal rhythms of the River Thames, which would have dominated Londoners’ lives in the past. This disconnection from the natural world partly explains the damage we are doing; why would we protect something that we are so distanced from?
Many of the folk clubs of the 1960s and 70s were political spaces where radical ideas could be discussed. It must have felt to people then that they were part of something bigger than folk music and that they were engaging with the political struggles of the time. But many of those clubs are now gone. We need new spaces in which we can experience environmental art, discuss politics, collaborate across disciplines and – most importantly – spread hope that progress is possible if we come together.
A performance from last year sticks in my mind. We were at Fire in the Mountain, a beautiful festival held in West Wales. It was a period of bruising political upheaval. People in the UK were reeling from the Brexit debate, a divisive general election campaign and the election of Donald Trump. It felt that night as if our music enabled a collective processing of what was happening in the world, and, crucially, offered hope that better times will come. As we left the stage, the audience continued our final, hopeful chorus from the song Keep your Hand on the Plough. It struck Sid and I that the simple act of bringing people together is a solution to the problems we sing of. A shared sense of purpose and agency can be uniquely stirred by music, and we as musicians must do all we can to create that.
The power of folk music lies not just in its ability to document social change but also to effect it. So this is a call to arms for artists, and particularly folk musicians, to engage with environmental issues and for the environmental movement to seek out and support artists who are attempting to help the cause.