If you hear whale songs today, you might be getting a massage or a facial. Some recordings of humpback whales feature slow melodies soothing enough for spa soundtracks. But in the 1970s, whale songs ignited the passions of music listeners and animal activists.
Biologist Roger Payne still thinks whale songs are the most evocative sound made by any animal. Though he’s not unbiased — he discovered them. When Payne started studying a mysterious recording in 1966, there was very little known about the sounds whales made, or why they made them. The recording came from a sound designer doing military research, Frank Watlington, who was trying to record undersea dynamite explosions.
Payne became obsessed with the recording, and made a startling discovery: the sounds were repeating. That means that they were scientifically classified as songs, arguably the most complex songs of any animal. Unlike birds or crickets, the whales’ songs were ten or more minutes long and repeated without a break.
At the time, whales were being hunted to near-extinction, and Payne saw the discovery of whale songs as a call-to-arms. “Do you make cat food out of composer-poets? I think that’s a crime.” Over the following years, Payne pressed the recordings on musicians, composers, and singers, including Judy Collins. “This tall man walked backstage,” Collins recalls. “And he handed me this little package” with a tape of the humpback whales. “It was very emotional. They’re so smart and have been here so long, and might have some insights about how we might live a better way.”
In 1970, Collins used the recordings on her album Whales and Nightingales, which went gold and introduced millions to whale song. She sings with the recordings “like a call and response, because I’m responding to them, and vice versa — they are answering me as well.” Collins devoted the royalties of those songs to Payne’s conservation work. Other whale song records appeared, and were found on every counterculture-leaning radio station and LP collection. Just as Payne hoped, these strange, evocative sounds inspired the growing Save the Whales movement, and by 1972 the US had banned whaling and whale products.
George Lipsitz, an American studies professor at the University of California, says the Save the Whale campaign was motivated by more than animal rights. At that time — in the wake of the Kent State shootings, the assassination of King, and the escalating Vietnam War — people were questioning the very notion of progress and civilization. “It’s almost like we were all looking for a kind of magic, an alchemy, to conjure a new world into being,” Lipsitz remembers. “Music, and the thinking around it, had become so conventional. When you disrupt that,” people thought at the time, “all things become possible.”
Farewell To TarwathieArtist: Judy CollinsAlbum: Whales & NightingalesLabel: 1970 Elektra/Asylum Records
Ocean DreamArtist: Paul Winter & Paul HalleyAlbum: Whales AliveLabel: Living Music
Songs of the Humpback WhaleLabel: CRM Records
WaveArtist: Lisa WalkerAlbum: Grooved Whale