Music Plays Vital Role in Greenpeace Activism

joni Mitchell photo

Photo left: Jerry Garcia plays a benefit concert in front of the James Bay, San Francisco Embarcadero, 1977. Photo copyright Rex Weyler. Photo right: James Taylor and Joni Mitchell at the Don’t Make A Wave Committee Fundraiser, Vancouver Coliseum, October 1970. Photo copyright Robert Stowe.

When rock music came to prominence in the 60s, it was accompanied by a strong sense of optimism, a belief that rock-n-roll could change the world: feelings that rose to new heights at the decade's musical pinnacle, Woodstock. Whether or not any form of pop music can change the world is perhaps still up for debate. What’s certain, though, is that music can and always has inspired the people who actually do change the world. That’s definitely true of Greenpeace’s founders right through to the activists who get involved with Greenpeace campaigns today. In fact, music has meant much more than just inspiration to Greenpeace throughout the years. From a valuable fund-raising tool that helped get the organization off the ground to a means of organizing and an opportunity for activism in and of itself, music has always played a vital role in the work Greenpeace does.

Country Joe McDonald 1976 photo

Country Joe McDonald at a send-off concert for a Greenpeace ship at Jericho Beach, in Vancouver, 1976. Photo copyright Greenpeace/Rex Weyler.

The Beginning: Joni Mitchell and James Taylor's Benefit Concert

Greenpeace was founded by several brave souls who climbed on board an old 80-foot halibut seiner on September 15, 1970 and attempted to sail into the United States’ nuclear test range at the island of Amchitka, off of Alaska’s west coast, to prevent a blast from occurring. A benefit concert by folk musicians Joni Mitchell and Phil Ochs, along with their surprise guest James Taylor, not only provided badly needed funds for the voyage, but also helped bring the cause to the public’s attention. The test range was shut down by the U.S. government shortly after (though they did, sadly, carry out that particular test blast).

posters greenpeace photo

Photo left: A Greenpeace flyer for Rock in Rio. Image copyright Greenpeace. Photo right: The flyer from the original Greenpeace benefit concert, held on October 16, 1970. Image copyright Greenpeace.

Country Joe McDonald and Jerry Garcia Help the Whales

A few years later, when the Greenpeace mission had expanded from protesting nuclear proliferation to also include stopping commercial whaling, Country Joe McDonald not only played at a send-off concert for a Greenpeace ship in Vancouver in 1976, but he also dedicated his hit single "Save the Whales" to Greenpeace. The next year, when one of our ships, the James Bay, was docked in San Francisco and had no means to get back out on the high seas to continue chasing the whaling fleets, a group of Greenpeacers went to see Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who was playing with the Jerry Garcia Band in Berkeley.

Greenpeace activist serenades whale photo

Greenpeace activist Mel Gregory, playing a wooden flute, serenades a gray whale in the Southern Ocean on New Years Day, 1976. Photo copyright Greenpeace/Rex Weyler.

When the Greenpeacers laid out their dilemma to Jerry--they needed $10,000 to fuel up the ship and buy provisions--he was immediately open to the idea of doing a benefit concert. Five days later, on August 12th, 1977, the Jerry Garcia Band stood right there on San Francisco’s Pier 31, in front of the James Bay, and played to a sold-out crowd. The concert raised $20,000, and the James Bay sailed out of port on August 19, headed back out to help save the whales.

greenpeace photo flag

Anti-Flag playing a show at the Greenpeace booth. Photo copyright Kyle Van Auker/Greenpeace

Music has played a much larger role in Greenpeace’s core mission of building a green and peaceful future than just helping raise funds, though. For instance, one of our ships was once outfitted with speakers pointing down into the ocean, so they could play music for the whales. (It turns out most whales greatly prefer classical music to rock or pop.) This allowed the crews on the ships to establish a close connection to the majestic creatures they were helping to protect. One crewman even serenaded the whales with his flute.

Concerts Have the Power to Send a Message to World Leaders

Greenpeace has also used concerts as an opportunity for mass activism. We decided to use the Rock in Rio concert held in Lisbon, Portugal on May 29, 2008 to send a very loud message to world leaders. Because our politicians didn’t seem to be offering any inspired responses to the climate crisis, we thought we’d provide them with some musical inspiration. We asked attendees of the concert to go home and record the first few minutes of Beethoven’s famous 5th Symphony--which research has shown to actually improve brain functions and promote creativity--on any instrument they had available. Then we played an amalgamation of the best submissions for the leaders when they met for the G8 summit in Toyako, Japan later that year.

Musicians as Advocates and Organizers

And of course musicians have frequently served as some of our best advocates and organizers. For instance, punk rock band Greenday has helped out with our MusicWood campaign, which seeks to convert the guitar industry to sustainably sourced wood and has been met with considerable success.

This summer, our solar panel-equipped, biodiesel-fueled truck, the Rolling Sunlight, has been on the Warped Tour powering the tour’s non-profit booths with clean, green solar energy. Punk/activist heroes Anti-Flag have stopped by our booth to play a few shows from time to time, and have been sporting our t-shirts on stage. This has helped get thousands of young concertgoers to sign up to work with Greenpeace and help urge President Obama to be a leader on climate change policy, rather than play politics with the issue, as he’s been doing.

So, as you can see, rock-n-roll may not necessarily have changed the world, but it has certainly done its part. So rock on!

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Music Plays Vital Role in Greenpeace Activism
Photo left: Jerry Garcia plays a benefit concert in front of the James Bay, San Francisco Embarcadero, 1977. Photo copyright Rex Weyler. Photo right: James Taylor and Joni Mitchell at the Don’t Make A Wave Committee Fundraiser, Vancouver Coliseum,

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