Earthfest 2019: Patti Smith, Harlem Gospel Choir, Michael Stipe - Rolling Stone
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Pathway to Paris: Watch Patti Smith and Harlem Gospel Choir’s Glorious Earth Day Celebration

Climate change nonprofit honors the Earth with poetry and performances at American Museum of Natural History

AMNH / D. Finnin

Jesse Paris Smith and Rebecca Foon co-founded the nonprofit Pathway to Paris five years ago after the People’s Climate March in New York City in 2014. Their mission, combating global climate change and helping cities reach their carbon reduction goals, is spread through eclectic showcases featuring global music, poetry readings and scientific talks by environmentalists such as Bill McKibben. They’re often held at tony establishments like Carnegie Hall. This year, Smith and Foon wondered: Could this ever work for kids?

This month — which is both Earth and Poetry month — seemed an auspicious time to test the waters. At the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Pathway to Paris joined the museum’s annual Earthfest celebration. It was free and seated, i.e. a welcome respite for families and kids taking a breather from ogling prehistoric bones and navigating wide marble hallways.

Performances included Michael Stipe with Andy LeMaster, Spanish classical guitarist Pablo Sainz Villegas and percussionist Nacho Arimany, Montreal-based pianist-singer Patrick Watson with Mishka Stein on bass and acoustic guitar. And two poems written by the influential filmmaker and curator Jonas Mekas, who died in January, were read (one of them by Stipe).

Doing double-duty as piano accompaniment and MC, Jesse Paris Smith segmented the performances with audience participation using flower-shaped solar lamps made by the Little Sun Foundation to educate children about renewable energy. The lamps are also sent to areas around the world that have lost electricity due to natural disasters. Smith led the room four times in the “Little Sun Sunrise,” an exercise meant to instill unity and a feeling of joyful purpose – it looked and felt like when a dark stadium lights up with swaying iPhones.

When Harlem Gospel Choir fanned the stage, it felt more like a traditional concert — clapping, call-and-responses — and classics, old and modern like “Oh Happy Day” and Beyoncé’s “Halo.” The Choir closed with a glorious rendition of “People Have The Power,” honoring Jesse Smith’s mother, Patti Smith, who stood below the stage with tears in her eyes. Their mighty voices sounded beatific. It was easy to imagine this was how Smith’s late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith might have envisioned the song when he wrote it as an anthem for ordinary people.

There was an air of exaltation when the punk poet and her daughter Jesse walked onstage for the final performance. But of course, to the under-10 crowd, she was a smiling, silvery-haired guitar lady. Aware of this, Smith connected by telling a story about the dodo bird; an animal we know, but have never seen because they’re extinct. Kids know dodos from books and movies like Alice in Wonderland and Ice Age. Funny-looking and flightless; dodos are painted as the hapless clowns of the animal kingdom. Smith offered an alternative history.

“They were very kind and loving, but they couldn’t fly,” said Smith. “And when explorers came to their island, they thought [the dodos] were so funny they used them for sport. By the 17th century they were extinct. And we mourn the dodo that we’ve never seen and we just pray and hope that we will all wake up and work harder and do all we can because how many species are we going to mourn by the end of this century?”

She read her poem, “The Sleep of the Dodo,” from her collection Auguries of Innocence. “This is a little poem imagining the last dodo,” she said. “All of his family has died. He’s all alone and he knows when he takes his last breath that there will be no more dodos in the world. And he does all he can not to sleep.”

She performed “Wing” and “Beneath the Southern Cross,” from her 1996 album Gone Again. In the timeline of Smith’s life, this album marked a bittersweet transition. It was a triumphant return to music and a mournful tribute to her departed husband Smith, as well as her friend Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith dedicated “Cross” to those people and species we’ve lost, banging away at her acoustic guitar under the magnificent blue whale, singing the crackling prayer of resistance to death.

The dodo parable was Smith’s gentle way of broaching loss, the dearness of life and our responsibility to act with purpose and compassion while we’re here. All of these concepts are, of course, implicit in any conversation about climate change, which asks each of us to consider what we stand to lose and what we are willing to do about it.

Pathway to Paris is a nonprofit organization dedicated to turning the Paris Agreement into reality through finding and offering innovative and ambitious solutions for combating global climate change. Join the 1000 Cities Campaign and sign the petition to urge your city’s leaders to reject fossil fuels and commit to 100% renewable energy by 2040.


In This Article: Earth, Michael Stipe, Patti Smith


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