Increasing Self-Esteem: Folk Songs and Our Insane World

Uncle Dave Macon
Uncle Dave Macon
by Article by Michael J. Cohen

A path to personal, social and environmental sanity as illustrated in traditional songs and their stories.

When Columbus discovered this country it was full of nuts and berries; now most of the berries are gone.” –
Uncle Dave Macon
, old time folk singer

Our society is run by insane people for insane objectives…. I think we’re being run by maniacs for maniacal ends … and I think I’m liable to be put away as insane for expressing that. That’s what’s insane about it.” – John Lennon, contemporary song artist

An unusual description of insanity is to call it, “A process of thinking and relating that knowingly destroys your own life support system.” In this regard, in 1978, to promote personal, social and environmental sanity, I was commissioned by the National Audubon Society to collect and produce an album of folk songs for them about people having sane relationships with nature. The songs were introduced with paragraphs written by William O. Douglas and narrated by Governor Russell Peterson, President of the National Audubon Society. The album’s object was to reflect the love or respect of nature that American frontiersmen and settlers developed because they lived close to the land for long periods of time. It was designed to consist of non-commercial, homemade songs that were shared by common people in the folk tradition. To my chagrin, I found very few folk songs that met this requirement. Most of them were, instead, about the challenges and hardships pioneers encountered while developing the land or making a profit from it.

Musical Reverence for Nature

In contrast to the songs of the settlers, I discovered in Native American cultures (the Natural People) many songs that expressed a reverence for nature. They were sung in thankfulness for nature’s rewarding gifts for survival, as we, today, similarly sing hymns to our God.

I believe in God only I spell it Nature,” -Frank Lloyd Wright

The Natural People were sane because they connected to nature; they revered and communed with it. In turn, they neither displayed nor produced the personal, social and environmental problems that we suffer, problems not found in nature due to its balancing and restorative powers. The songs of Natural People reflect the sanity they enjoyed from their links with nature. For example:

The wind is beauty, hey yah, hey yah
The hills are beauty, hey yah, hey yah
The stars are beauty, hey yah, hey yah
Hey yah, hey yah, hey yah

Beauty around me, hey yah, hey yah
Beauty surrounds me hey yah, hey yah
Beauty abounds (in) me hey yah, hey yah
Hey yah, hey yah, hey yah

In contrast to the sentiments in this song, our society is excessively separated and suffers from our conquest of nature within and around us. For example, on occasion people have told me to put my “John Henry” on an official document. Mind you, not my “John Han*censored*,” the noted signer of the Declaration of Independence, but my John Henry. When I’ve asked who John Henry was, those in charge seldom know. They say, “It’s just an expression.”

Conquering Natural Systems

John Henry is a folk hero, an legendary hammer man who drove steel in the 1880’s to build a tunnel through a mountainous natural area. The engineering company introduced a steam drill that would replace him if it could do his job faster. To secure his job and self-esteem, John Henry swore that he could drive steel better than the drill.

John Henry said to his Captain, I am a natural man,
A man ain’t nothing but a man,
And before I let a steam drill beat me down,
I’ll die with the hammer in my hand.

A race between John Henry and the steam drill was arranged and John Henry won. In the allotted time, “He drove his hole sixteen feet, the steam drill made only nine.” However, his great effort was also his downfall:

The hammer that John Henry swung,
It weighed over nine pounds.
His hammer was a striking fire
He broke a rib on his left-hand side
His entrails fell to the ground
He drove so hard that he broke his poor heart
And he lay down his hammer and he died, poor boy
He lay down his hammer and he died.

Identifying Our Troubles

Many folk songs and legends describe John Henry’s heartfelt plight because we subconsciously recognize it being similar to our own stressful troubles as members of industrial society. Like the Natural People, we are born as wise and balanced parts of nature. However, we become what our nature-disconnected environment molds our thinking to make us.

We are not ourselves when nature, being oppressed, commands the mind to suffer with the body.”-William Shakespeare

Although we are part of nature, our indoor existence separates our thinking from nature’s balanced and restorative ways. On average, over 95 percent of our time and 99 percent of our thinking is disconnected from nature. We are economically and socially rewarded for thinking out of tune with natural systems and for being successful exploiters of them. These rewards condition or addict our contemporary thinking to operate in nature-conquering ways, including its conquest of our natural self. We must recognize the madness of this addiction for our thinking is our destiny.

The way it is now, the asylums can hold the sane people but if we
tried to shut up the insane we would run out of building materials
.”-Mark Twain

Restoring Sanity.

In 1966, to help reduce our personal and environmental insanity, I introduced a unique nature-connected psychology to a school program. Folk songs played a big part in it. The object was to help teachers and students learn how to genuinely re-connect their mind with authentic nature’s balanced ways and enjoy the sanity that resulted.

Genuine sensory contact with the beauty and restorative powers of nature helped the
school community and its members increase their good sense and happiness. In time, like the Natural People, they neither suffered, displayed nor promoted the destructive problems we normally face. Trained observers documented that the experiment produced “A utopian living and learning community that was on the side of the angels.”

Our great problems are the result of the difference between how we think and how nature works.”-Gregory Bateson

Today, through the Internet, my nature-reconnecting psychology tool helps us benefit from nature’s ways by empowering us, at will, to make conscious sensory contact with natural areas, backyard or back country. While in nature, the tool helps us disconnect our mind’s addictive bonds to our indoor ways of knowing and relating. Otherwise, our addiction causes us to remain mentally separated from nature and our thinking remains filled with stressful problems, expectations and stories from our indoor lives, even while we are surrounded by the beauty and peace of a forest. We, however, call this normal, not a mental disorder.

That, of course, is the devil’s bargain of addiction: a short-term
good feeling in exchange for the steady meltdown of one’s life
.”-Daniel Goldman

Increasing Self-Esteem

By applying my nature-connecting tool in natural settings, our thinking becomes sensuously conscious of nature and registers nature’s natural systems, senses and sensitivities. The tool enables us to help our thinking become more sane from conscious contact with the qualities of nature that produce its well being, and our well being, too. This occurs during times when our thinking becomes whole with nature. In gratitude for this gift from nature, our psyche loves nature and that increases our ability to feel and validate this love. It becomes important, not “flakey.” This is environmentally significant because we passionately protect what we love and accordingly increase our self-esteem.

Sigmund Freud noted, “A man who is in love declares that I and You are one and is prepared to behave as if it were a fact.” When our thinking celebrates our inherent love for natural systems within and around us, we think in balance, like nature works, and restore our sanity.

Fortunately, I discovered that some environmentally caring contemporary people had written songs about how they were connected to nature and I finally used them to produce that National Audubon Society album “Equilibrium: Songs of Nature and Humanity” in 1979.

Further information:

Michael J. Cohen, Ed.D. is
the Director of the Institute of Global Education, Project NatureConnect. He is the author of ten published books and several albums dedicated to folk music as well as coming from a folk singing family (including his brother, John Cohen, of the New Lost City Ramblers).

This article is reproduced with permission from Michael J. Cohen and can also be found at this Web site: