Justice for the Folks

On a late August afternoon in West Philadelphia’s Clark Park, I interviewed Philadelphia-based activist & singer-songwriter Joshua Marcus about his political artistic project, This Land: An Environmental Justice Folk Recording. This Land is a compilation of Marcus’s original songs inspired by his collaborations with grassroots organizers relating to seven different issues of environmental injustice and resistance in the United States. Marcus created the material through library research, phone interviews, and on-site visits with grassroots community activists, most of whom have been forced into politics by the unlivable environmental conditions that they themselves and their communities are subject to. The songs are interspersed with the compelling first-person testimonials of these activists in their own voices.

DB: In your intro to the project, you say that it’s in a folk tradition of Pete Seeger and Woody Gurthrie. How were you influenced by them?

JM: The folk tradition is music written by regular people. It is not supposed to be high art, but focused on conveying different messages. I like to listen to older folk music in general. Before working on this project I was listening to a lot of social justice folk. I like the urgency of listening to something that when you hear it even if you don’t know what they are talking about, the language or who they are, something about it compels you to listen. When I listen to older social justice folk, I don’t always know the whole context, but the narration and the way that they were singing was so compelling. That’s the tradition that I want to write in.

DB: What distinguishes folk music? And why did you decide to do this CD in the folk tradition?

JM: The main thing is trying to harness a simple way of writing a song that people are interested in. The intention and the format of folk music lends itself to storytelling. The songs are comprised, for the most part, of simple chord structures, patterns and repeated melody. I tried to hold back from doing more complicated music in order to really let the content speak.

I was hoping this project would find a home in that tradition, yet concerned with issues of the present. There is a real lack of contemporary social justice folk music, and almost none dealing with environmental justice issues. I looked through the folkways catalogue and saw that there was almost none on environmental issues, just one for kids, and I was like how is there just one? There is such a live catalogue of social justice folk music, particularly focused on agrarian and civil rights. I was perplexed that there has not been much music about environmental justice issues.

Jen Osha, and Sam McCreery’s Moving Mountian CD focused on Coal and Joyce Katzberg has some nuclear power protest songs. I think that those are the only other folks that I’ve heard that are singing and making music to do with environmental issues.

DB: Why did you focus specifically on environmental justice issues and organizations in the US as opposed to the Environmental Movement more broadly?

JM: When I set out to do this project I had spent 4 years studying in an Environmental Studies department and learned very little about environmental justice. I learned about issues like brownfields, deforestation, and climate change but it never had a focus on the people. How it’s affecting the people. The greening of industry is not concerned with the people and the destruction of people’s lives, livelihoods and home, it’s more about being more energy efficient. My intention was to be specifically about environmental justice.

DB: Why did you pick these particular groups and what was that process like for you?

JM: I limited the project within this country, and even so there were so many race, language, and class barriers for me to navigate in connecting with folks to be like this is me, who I am, and can we engage in a way that is positive for both of us. I chose groups that represented a diversity of issues and were interested in the project for itself.

DB: How did you decide which groups to feature?

JM: I mostly found them through word of mouth. I knew that I wanted to address issues of mountain top removal, water contamination, coal, etc. Lois Gibbs, from the Love Canal Homeowners Association and the Center for Health the Environment and Justice, suggested another group. I was trying to find a group working on water contamination and they pointed me to Shelia Holt from Tennessee who was working around environmental racism in Tennessee. The song “Poison in the Well” is based on her story. She is an amazing lady.  I was pointed to about 5 anti-strip mining groups. For the groups represented on the CD there were many others.

DB: What did you learn about environmental racism?

JM: Before this project I had heard about environmental racism, but I didn’t know what it entailed. It’s a tangible form of racism that exists today. It’s been hard for Shelia to get reparations for her family and her health. It’s hard to point a finger at anyone. Companies are not regulated. The government doesn’t take responsibility or make the company. All of the black residents live together in a county that is 96 % white, and they live directly across from the town dump. Their water is contaminated. There is little legal recourse established. Shelia is trying to win her case to set a precedent. State agencies admit that there were problems and they should have done something sooner, but that is not justice. It should be in the planning stages. They should be required to do it in advance.

It makes me angry, but in this detached way. I know I am trying to help, but I live in a totally different place.  I am not doing enough. I am doing something in my comfort zone, I can step in and out. I am using the CD as fundraising and education tool not for my own benefit, but still I come home and have privilege. In the summer there is a severe air quality warning like everyday we are all affected and our neighborhood is affected, but still at some distance from my personal life, which is hard to reconcile. That I am trying to do this thing, but not having to do it, the folks that I am writing about – that is their life. They are living it, they don’t have a choice…

And I am working on it, but I don’t live it. It’s not my reality. Which is hard for me to find a balance, and not feel guilty.

DB: So how do you?

JM: For me it’s about maintaining a bridge between people who aren’t living this at all and people who do live it. I feel like this project does that. The music is designed to be for folks who aren’t living it. To bring the stories to them through music and personal stories to confront them with it, but also so that people don’t just shut down.

DB: What is the main thing that you hope people get from this project?

JM: I hope it moves them the way it moved me to meet all these amazing people and learn about their struggles. Environmental injustice is everywhere. It has devastating affects on people’s health and homes, and the ability to make a living.  The amount of pollution that we experience here in Philadelphia is not at a point where it is really affecting our daily lives. It’s not insufferable. This project involved me seeing and hearing from people who are just suffering in our country in their daily lives, the severity of that. And learning that has impacted the way that I see the world, how I interact. The interviews are right from the person’s mouth this is how it is

In my interview with Larry Gibbs from the West Virginia-based Keepers of the Mountain, he was so clear and eloquent. He didn’t write it out, we were in his car, he knows how to articulate it because it’s his life. Every time you flip a switch on the wall, mountains are blowing up and people are dying. It’s true!

It makes me super vigilant and hypersensitive.  We can do a little bit; limit your luxury and it will in turn ease someone’s suffering.

DB: And one thing that people can do is to support these organizers by buying a CD!

JM: That’s right.

All of the proceeds of the CD sales go back to the participating groups to help fund their actions and organizing. Please visit thislandourland.org to listen to songs, find out more information about the project, and to order CDs.