Songs about the Burning of the Cuyahoga River

The burning Cuyahoga River (image via: Cleveland Press)

On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire, sparking a shift in how Americans look at pollution.

This river valley in the middle of Cleveland, Ohio, was home to many steel mills and factories that had been dumping their waste products into the river for decades, much of it flammable. Sadly, this was business as usual in Cleveland (and many other US cities) for some time until this 1969 fire got national attention and gave “fuel” to the nascent environmental movement that had been growing throughout the ’60s. The polluted river also became a focus of the new Environmental Protection Agency (founded in 1970) and the legal work to fix the pollution problem eventually lead to the landmark Clean Water Act of 1972, the primary law on water pollution in the US.

This incident also made Cleveland a national disgrace. It was like, “Cleveland, you had one job… don’t let your water get so filthy that it defies the laws of nature and catches fire!” The city, which had been losing jobs and population for years like much of the rust belt, began to be seen as a failure in the national consciousness. And this perversion of alchemy — a burning river — became the primary example of pollution in Americans’ minds.

It was a very hot topic of the time. The nation’s nightly comedian Johnny Carson made jokes about it: “What’s the difference between Cleveland and the Titanic? Cleveland has a better orchestra.” Dr. Suess’s 1971 book about the environment, The Lorax, also had a dig at Cleveland: “I hear that things are just as bad up in Lake Erie.”

And several songs have been written about it. Here is a look at the songs that were inspired by the infamous burning of the river. Call it hubris, call it a mistake… the incident has been fertile ground for songwriters.

“Burn On”
By Randy Newman

Randy Newman is a songwriter who’s made a name for himself with melodic pop songs that have biting satirical messages. When he sang “Short people got no reason to live,” he wasn’t ridiculing people with less-then-average-height. He was slapping us in the face with a message about othering. And when he had a hit with “I Love LA,” he didn’t actually love that town. If you listen closely, the song just lists tons of banal and ignominious aspects of Los Angeles. I’ve heard it has been ironically adopted as LA’s theme song of sorts and gets played at Dodgers games. The catchy melodies and fun beats of Newman;s songs were the the perfect cover for these harsh truths to be delivered.

And in 1972, he couldn’t help himself in crafting a mock tribute to the burning of the Cuyahoga with “Burn On.” It was just too juicy a topic for him. As mentioned before, Cleveland became the butt of many dumb jokes, but Newman took it to another level with this tune. “Burn On” is a majestic song fit for Broadway with it’s dramatic horn and string accompaniments. He calls the town “City of Magic” while invoking it’s lowest moment. Then he brings the burn home with the final stanza: “Now the Lord can make you tumble/ The Lord can make you turn/ The Lord can make you overflow/ But the Lord can’t make you burn.” Wowza, Randy. Those steel mills are gonna think twice before getting rid of oil and waste into the river. Randy made some hay from the incident. That’s what he does. The song also opens the 1987 Cleveland-set baseball movie Major League. Another ironic use of one of tricky Randy’s songs.

“Cuyahoga”
By REM

R.E.M.’s 1986 album Lifes Rich Pageant contains a song called “Cuyahoga” and that was a surprise to me! I was huge fan of R.E.M. in high school (living in Cuyahoga County, a few miles from the Cuyahoga River) and very grateful when a friend made me some cassette copies of their early albums. That’s when I discovered this poignant mid-tempo song about how man has spoiled the natural world. At least that’s the impression I got of the song’s lyrics. The combo of Michael Stipe’s mumbled southern vocals and the impressionistic lyrics themselves gave the band this cryptic cool that I ate up. Puzzling lines such as “Bank the quarry river swim” which forced you make an interpretation really spoke to me at the time. AllMusic’s Bill Janovitz explains this aspect of R.E.M.: “Figuring out what he was singing and, subsequently, the significance of his words, is half the fun for fans of the band. Like a dream, the meaning crept up slowly, but hit that much deeper when it finally did reveal itself.”

Since my R.E.M. cassette was unlabeled (no song titles!), I had no idea that there was a song about the area where I’d lived most of my life. This is because they mispronounce the word “Cuyahoga,” which should be spoken “Kie-a-HO-ga.” The chorus of the song is just that one titular word. And they sing it as “Koi-a-Huuuu-Ga!” and so the word did not register to me at all. After many listens, my mind did it’s best to interpret this incomprehensible chorus, and came up with this four syllable chorus: “Pull your hoods up!”, as in… “remove your hoods from covering your eyes so you can see correctly!” My interpretation nailed the ethos of song. The tune is a vague “wake-up call” for society to fix its problems, as the opening lyrics earnestly suggest: “Let’s put our heads together/ Start a new country up.”

All in all, it’s an elegant song that romantically mourns the loss of man’s connection to nature. And what better case-in-point to reference than the burning of that crooked river?

I believe it also laments a loss of childlike innocence with lines like, “We knee-skinned it you and me,” but that is open to interpretation, like most R.E.M. songs.

“Cuyahoga”
by Over the Rhine

Here’s a soulful instrumental by the long-running Ohio folk act Over the Rhine, who are from the southern part of the state. This brief rustic ditty could be the theme song to a television show on AMC about a small town sheriff who has a delicious and scandalous secret. But yeah, it has no words, so your guess is as good as mine why these Southern Ohioans named it after the river up north. Over the Rhine, I guess your river in the south of the state (called the Ohio River) never did anything as cool as catch on fire, huh?

“Roll On Cuyahoga”
By Magpie

This paean to the mighty Cuyahoga River, by long-running folk duo Magpie (who began their career in town that the Cuyahoga flows through, Kent, Ohio) is in the quaint folksong tradition that extolls the virtues of nature, a la Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” Pete Seeger’s “My Dirty Stream,” and Phil Ochs’ “The Power and the Glory.” Over acoustic guitar and shimmering mandolin, they sing about the beauty of the river and our our essential connection to it. And the pollution is poetically addressed too:
“With many years we filled you with all we’ve thrown away
Many years ignoring what your singing waters say
Until you cried enough, a painful memory etched in flame
Have we learned a lesson that is spoken in your name?”
Well said.

“River on Fire”
By Adam Again

I just discovered this one. It’s a gloomy, atmospheric, mostly-acoustic song about a doomed relationship. The reference to the Cuyahoga fire is weak: “I’ll grab a metaphor out of the air.” Sure the burning river conundrum is ripe with metaphoric potential. But here it’s thrown in as a placeholder for meaning.

Cleveland’s own Burning River Pale Ale. Image: Great Lakes Brewery

The fortunate result of the Cuyahoga River catching on fire is that it helped to inspire new ways of thinking about our bodies of water, and how to treat them. The fact is that the river has been cleaned up and is now an environmental success story (although it could not have gotten much worse).

The incident that cast an embarrassing pall over the Cleveland and northern Ohio is now looked at as colorful part of its past and, more importantly, an ironic point of pride. Cleveland’s longest running craft beer brewery, Great Lakes Brewery, named one of their most popular beers Burning River Pale Ale. Many local businesses such as local bands, record labels, a kayak rental company, and also the local roller derby league have named themselves with different iterations of the Burning River concept.

Some say, “tragedy plus time equals comedy.” It could be also said: tragedy plus time creates who you are.

BONUS: More Notable Songs about Water and Pollution from the 1960s & ‘70s

“Dirty Water”
By The Standells

In this 1960s garage rock classic, the Standells belt out, “ I love that dirty water!” They are celebrating Boston’s Charles River, which was (un)naturally very polluted at the time, a common condition for rivers in pre-1970 American urban and industrial areas. And they don’t care about pollution. Its the grimey, raunchy scene by the river, full of “lovers, muggers and thieves” that this #11 Billboard hit is about.

It’s interesting that this song came out in 1966, just a few years before the environmental movement really came into full swing. After the outrage about the ’69 Cuyahoga fire and the founding of the EPA in ’70, I doubt a song about dirty water could be such a hit. Also, it’s notable that this romp about the seedier side of Boston has become quite the theme song for Beantown, and played at every Red Sox victory at Fenway Park, very much like the super-ironic “I Love LA.”

“Don’t Go Near The Water”
By The Beach Boys

This 1971 Beach Boys song is not about the Cuyahoga, per se. But it is focused on water pollution and it mention rivers. So I bet that the recent Cuyahoga fire and the increased attention on environmental issues inspired it.

This is the Beach Boys’ first (and maybe only) political song. Their bread-and-butter was rhapsodizing the pleasures of surfing and being near the water! Now in 1971, they sought to be “relevant” and the environmental movement was a hot button issue. Marvin Gaye had movingly addressed the issue the year before with the powerful “Mercy Mercy Me the Ecology.” Now the Beach Boys wanted in on this thing called “awareness.”

The result is a throw-away track written by Mike Love and Al Jardine, that lacks the magic of the Boys’ greatest work by Brian Wilson. The singing is awash in mock sincerity and the lyrics are like a children’s song. The point of this “message song” is simplistically summed up with the line: “Our water’s going bad.”

“Don’t Go Near the Water”
By Johnny Cash

Coincidentally, a few years later, Johnny Cash recorded his own song called “Don’t Go Near the Water,” that wasn’t a cover of the forgettable Beach Boys tune. Throughout his career, Cash’s work often dealt with real-life tough issues, such as having trouble with the law, being in prison, racism, Vietnam (he was against the war), and being an outcast. So addressing pollution fit his persona, especially when he couched his heartfelt message in terms of how pollution affects a father and son’s fishing trip. “Son, it may not be safe to eat the fish in this water anymore,” he mourns. Cash doesn’t sugarcoat this inconvenient truth when he advises, “The water isn’t water anymore.”

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