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Hajdu: The Many Musical Tributes to Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson, the poet-warrior of the environmental movement, did a heroic kind of humanist advocacy science that’s easy for artists to love. She was fearless, literate, and personally enigmatic, and her radical work came at just the right time in postwar history, standing as a challenge to the cult of industrial science in the years after the Manhattan Project. In recent decades, Carson has been the subject of a growing body of musical works, many of them ballads by activist singer-songwriters (“Song for Rachel” by Walkin’ Jim Stoltz, “Rachel” by Magpie, and others, 17 of which were collected on the album Songs for the Earth: A Tribute to Rachel Carson, in the late 1980s). Five years ago, the jazz pianist and (recently retired) NPR radio host Marian McPartland played piano in the premiere of her original orchestral piece, A Portrait of Rachel Carson. Inspired mainly by Carson’s best-remembered book, Silent Spring, the composition is a partly improvised, largely programmatic work that movingly evokes and celebrates the sounds of the natural world. (McPartland produced it in collaboration with the arranger and composer Alan Broadbent.)

This coming fall will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring, and the year’s first musical tribute to Carson and her work has just opened, remarkably, on the stage of Feinstein’s cabaret room in the Regency Hotel in New York. Called Silent Spring: It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature, the show is a resolutely quirky performance piece by the singer, pianist, and songwriter Nellie McKay, who portrays Carson with the giddy fervor and endearing, self-conscious effusiveness of a middle schooler putting her all into the graduation show. By comparison, Glee is grim. McKay has committed herself so fully to her image of Carson as a brainy pioneer of the New Frontier that she dyed her hair brown for the show and shelved the kittenish glamour act that established her as a young darling of the New York nightclubs. There’s something deliciously subversive about this show, with its cheeky mix of stagey inventiveness, deep earnestness and ironic, implied amateurism. As Nellie McKay’s own Manhattan Project, it’s sweetly explosive.

In the absence of a video from this new production, I’m posting a clip of McKay, in her blonde days, singing and playing “Food,” one of the original songs that she interpolated into her plans for Silent Spring.

David Hajdu is music critic for The New Republic.