The singer-songwriter has long been a vessel through which we hear about Earth’s environmental struggle. Flip through the songbooks of greats like Joni Mitchell and Bruce Cockburn and you will find excellent examples of music worth highlighting, especially on a day like Earth Day.
While there is no tome filled with world-conscious lyrics for the R&B/soul music lover, one particular song fits the bill. It was written over 40 years ago.
“Oh mercy, mercy me, oh things ain’t what they used to be.”
It’s common to think this opening lyric to Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me (the Ecology)” from his 1971 album What’s Going On is a timeless sentiment about a changing relationship between lovers. But it isn’t. Rather, it is a timeless lament about the environmental injuries Earth has endured.
When Gaye set out to produce What’s Going On, he was working by himself for the first time, creating a concept album with each song leading into the next. The concept was to write songs from the vantage point of a soldier, back from the Vietnam War and returning to a world of suffering and injustice.
In “Mercy, Mercy Me (the Ecology),” the soldier is aghast, saddened by the stark change he sees in the sky and the sea – to him, an unnecessary change delivered by the hands of his fellow humans.
With that familiar moan “things ain’t what they used to be,” it’s as though the soldier is looking skyward, shaking his head to himself and wishing to forget how ugly we can be, because he knows.
In Gaye’s mind, the soldier wonders:
“Where did all the blue skies go?
Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and east.”
Today the soldier is gone, and so is Gaye. But we are here, still breathing that poison in the wind. In Canada, we are supplied with an Air Quality Health Index to stay informed about potential toxins in our lungs. In the U.S., there’s an app for that. So 41 years after “Mercy, Mercy Me (the Ecology)” was written, it’s not hard to imagine an environmental activist writing the same words today.
“Radiation underground and in the sky,
Animals and birds who live nearby are dying,
Oh mercy, mercy me.”
But maybe this Earth Day, while the lyrics still ring true, they are not a dark reality check. Maybe as corners of the Earth need repair, we’re just reminded to keep caring.
What's on your Earth Day playlist?
R&B history moment: Marvin Gaye’s ‘What's Going On’
R&B history moment: 'I Heard it Through the Grapevine'
Earth Day 2012: Canadian singer-songwriters’ odes to Earth
Jack Johnson: 100% for the planet
Earth Day: One world, many voices