April 22, 2009

Bill Steele's 'Garbage!' remains an Earth Day anthem

A year before the first Earth Day observance on April 22, 1970 -- a nationwide environmental "teach-in" for 20 million participants -- folk musician Bill Steele '54 wrote one of the environmental movement's anthems: "Garbage!" Forty years on, the song still resonates as much as it did when Steele wrote it in San Francisco in 1969.

"There was a big fuss in San Francisco at the time about dumping garbage in the bay, not as trash but as landfill to build new waterfront condominiums. So that sort of inspired it all," Steele says.

Steele is the Cornell Chronicle's electronic communications editor and a longtime member of the Cornell Folk Song Society (first formed as the Cornell Folk Song Club in the late 1950s, a time known to practitioners as "the great folk scare").

He recalled the straight line that "Garbage!" followed from the three-verse ditty he wrote and played for friends, to an internationally known favorite popularized by fellow folk singers including Pete Seeger and San Francisco Folk Club organizer Faith Petric, who knew a good topical song when she heard one.

"I sang it at a folk song club party one night, and Faith Petric stuck a microphone in my face," Steele says. "Larry Hanks learned it from Faith, and he went and sang it at some festival in Michigan, where Michael Cooney learned it, and that's who Pete Seeger learned it from. And that's the folk process: the oral transmission of song from one person to another."

Seeger has performed "Garbage!" for four decades and has recorded at least four different versions, including a performance with the Paul Winter Consort and a duet with Oscar the Grouch on the LP "Pete Seeger and Brother Kirk Visit Sesame Street."

Not long after Steele wrote the song, "it became an underground hit," Seeger said in 1998 on Public Radio International's "Living on Earth." "There must be thousands of people all around the country who know this song and sing it."

The song became so popular it was included in the Sierra Club's "Survival Songbook" in 1971, a year before Steele released it on an LP, "Garbage! and other garbage" (Bay Records). "Garbage!" also appears in the folk singers' bible, "Rise Up Singing," and "Earth and Spirit Songbook."

The song has inspired several additional verses over the years, notably by Seeger and Mike Agranoff. Their 1977 addenda include a verse (beginning with "In Mister Thompson's factory, they're making plastic Christmas trees ...") and a new chorus, decrying the effects of corporations and capitalism.

"Garbage!" also is a staple at summer camps, much like Steele's other best-known song, "Chocolate Chip Cookies," which appears in Girl Scout songbooks.

Steele says he's only seen about $3,000 in publishing royalties from "Garbage!" over the years, and he still receives remittance for broadcasts of the song, as well as Internet royalties from various Seeger performance clips on YouTube.

Noting how the song, written for its time, has endured, he said: "Writing topical songs can be frustrating because they go out of currency very quickly. What's frustrating about this one is that 40 years after it was written, it is still current. From the environmental standpoint, it's frustrating that we haven't done anything about it, and that this problem is still with us after all this time."

Steele will participate in a celebration of Pete Seeger's 90th birthday, May 3 at noon in Stewart Park. For details, see http://jimharpermusic.com/forpetessakesing.html.