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November 18, 2015

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“Can I Get a Witness?”: “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)”


Gaye composed “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology),” released in 1971, as a gentle reprimand for lack of environmental stewardship. The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill was then the largest oil spill in American history. The incident served as the infrastructure of present-day environmental advocacy (Baker 89). Though pollution had become a heated discussion in the early 1970s, its discourse was not nearly as prevalent in the African-American community.

According to music historian Dave Marsh:

Ironic, isn’t it, that Save the Earth music became one of the ultimate white-bread genres of the seventies and eighties, a Luddite province that rejected all of the musical developments of rock and soul in favor of a return to the false-faced pastorialism of nebulous ‘folk culture,’ when the greatest piece of music ever written in favor of the survival of the environment appeared on the greatest black pop album ever made. (Marsh 407)

“Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)” presented a public opportunity for African-Americans to be included in a once-racially isolated discussion about a universal problem.

The song comes across as a regretful reflection. At times, the tune even appears apologetic to God and a plea for nature to return to “what [it] use to be.” Gaye wrote the words,

Oh, mercy mercy me/Oh, things ain’t what they used to be/No, no/Where did all the blue skies go?/Poison is the wind that blows/From the north, east, south, and sea/Oh, mercy mercy me/Oh, things ain’t what they used to be/No, no/Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas/Fish full of mercury/Oh, mercy mercy me/Oh, things ain’t what they used to be/No, no/Radiation in the ground and in the sky/Animals and birds who live nearby are dying/Oh, mercy mercy me/Oh, things ain’t what they used to be/What about this overcrowded land?/How much more abuse from man can you stand?/My sweet Lord/My sweet Lord/My sweet Lord.

Though Gaye laments the current conditions, his tune has hints of optimism. He reinerates the Lord’s sweetness in a closing refrain. The belief in redemption is a motif in his work. Nature’s ability to heal itself is similar to that of people who are able to be made new by accepting the Holy Spirit within themselves.

During the presidency of Barack Obama, his cabinet has done intense research that indicates that climate change and international tension are directly related. According to current Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy:

There are a variety of impacts that we’re feeling from a changing climate, and we need to stop those impacts from escalating by failing to take action—one of those is instability. We can see that underlying issues in many countries that lead to animosity, and then can lead to conflict. So it is a national security issue for us, as well as an issue that’s incredibly important for our local communities. (McDonnell)

In the wake of the Parisian terroristic attacks carried out by ISIS, President Obama plans to correlate the hostility to the climate crisis in his upcoming visit to the French capital this month.

Current policy issues reflect just what Gaye was speaking of—how we as people treat our environment is a reflection of how we as people treat each other.

Baker, Gayle. Santa Barbara: Another Harbor Town History. Santa Barbara,  California: Harbor Town Histories, 2003. Print.

Marsh, Dave. The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 1999. Print.

McDonnell, Tim. “Watch: Obama’s Top Environmental Official on the Paris Attacks and Why Climate Change Threatens National Security.” Mother Jones and the Foundation for National Progress, 2015. Web. 18 Nov 2015.

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