One Species Are We (The Linnaeus Song)

Since I first began playing folk music, I found that a keen interest in science, nature and the environment was not an uncommon characteristic of the musicians and singers I met and learned from. The man who first welcomed me to the thriving CT folk scene, Don Sineti, has been and continues to be a champion of cetacean (whales and dolphins) conservation and environmental consciousness. Likewise, the flute player from whom I learned many tunes, Jim Sirch, lectures in ecology at the Yale Peabody Museum. These and countless other examples made it clear to me that home-grown and hand-crafted music sits comfortably in the hands of environmentally conscious folks. They inspired me to combine my interests in nature and music.   

Now, I have rarely ventured into the world of songwriting, and I have great respect for those with the skill and originality to craft words and melody into something timeless, catchy and meaningful. The courage to then share a song with the rest of the world is even more admirable. My early creations were sparse and primarily parodies of folk songs focusing on insects and their natural histories. I would borrow the melody and lyrical structure from a song like 'Bury Me Beneath the Willow' and attempt to write a song about a willow-feeding caterpillar...but I rarely completed these little song-writing experiments. 

In 2008, I first heard Finest Kind sing “No More Fish, No Fisherman” at the 29th annual Mystic Sea Music festival. I thought this song which Shelley Posen had written was one of the greatest I had ever heard. After buying the album and reading the liner notes, I was amazed to learn that the melody was hijacked from an English Christmas carol of all things! This took parodying an important step further: lose all the words, keep the melody, and write something new and beautiful. Since then, I’ve desired and endeavored to create something equally catchy and powerful about biology, entomology or some other natural science.

In 2015, an idea finally took root. I wanted to write something like a drinking song where each verse toasted the next character in a series (cf. The Barley Mow). With that in mind, the idea to focus on Linnaeus’s biological classification system was almost immediate. Each of the verses of the song would describe one of the 8 hierarchical categories that human beings are classified in, starting with Domain and ending with Species. I took a lesson from Shelley and borrowed a melody of the same type. Where he had repurposed the melody of “See Amid the Winter Snow”, I borrowed another English carol, “Awake, Arise, Good Christians” that I heard from the singing of the late and very great Tom Gibney. This is a song that I fell in love with musically, but had no interest in singing because of my complete lack of emotional connection to the lyrics. 

As I made my daily commute between Providence and the University of Connecticut in late 2015, I gradually composed each verse. It helped that I was teaching introductory biology labs at the time and was immersed in this particular level of taxonomy. The chorus came surprisingly easily and 'Linnaeus'/'betray us' will always be the rhyme I'm most proud of. The final line of the chorus and likewise the title of the song, "One species are we!' has the look and emotional weight of an all-inclusive mantra that aims to remind us all that despite the hate and egregious injustices that are interminably displayed on every media outlet and mar our brief existence on this planet, we humans are not all that different. In fact, despite color, creed, heritage, etc., we are all as closely related as we can be in a taxonomic sense. When I started writing the song, I didn't expect it to have a strong underlying message, but alas, that's how it went. And since I was on that road already, I had to seize the opportunity to include a topical political punch line in the final verse. 

By mid-January the song was nearly complete. I tried it out for the first time at a local pub sing in Providence where it was received with great delight and encouragement. I slyly (or perhaps boldly) snuck it in at other sings, musical gatherings and festivals around New England until friends started requesting it. Recently, I sang it at TradMad at Pinewoods camp and I was flattered by the number of people who asked me for the lyrics and showed interest in learning the song. So I'm finally making good on my promise to distribute "The Linnaeus Song", and I'll be eagerly looking forward to hearing someone else lead it for a change. 

The lyrics (with some helpful definitions) are below. Armand and I have yet to make a proper recording of this song, but thanks to our good friend Benjamin Foss, there is a rough recording from the 2016 New England Folk Festival available here (http://logamp.com/1808/music/tracks/7264) for your educational listening pleasure. 

-Benedict

One Species Are We 
(melody = Awake, Arise Good Christians)

Of three domains of all life, eukaryotes are we 
Inside each cell within us, a nucleus there be
Bacteria, Archaea, unfortunate are they 
They have no membrane bound around their strands of DNA 

Chorus: Linnaeus! Linnaeus! Here’s to your hierarchy 
And let it not betray us! One species are we! 

Come all you motile metazoans and listen to my song 
The kingdom Animalia is where we all belong 
The plants may have their chlorophyll to photosynthesize 
But animals are heterotrophs and so are the Fungi 

Our backbone gives us structure, our backbone gives us strength 
So with the other chordates, we find our phylum rank 
But let our boney ego, never be unfurled 
For the spineless worms and insects, they truly rule the world 

By the milk our mothers gave us, by the hair upon our skin 
It’s clear that we are mammals, class Mammalia we’re in 
Most have a placenta, but this class has strange extremes 
Like the milky-pouched marsupials and egg-laying monotremes

So let’s put things in order, now that we’ve been to class 
With monkeys, apes, prosimians, we, the primates, do amass 
We all can be distinguished by our well-filled craniums 
And the envy of all other life: two fine opposable thumbs 

Welcome to our family, all Great Apes are we 
Orangutan, gorilla and our cousin chimpanzee 
But if you believe bonobos just evolved into man 
It seems you treat your own brain just like a garbage can 

Homo is the genus of the African bipeds 
Who stood erect, and picked up tools, and learned to use their heads 
Our cousins are extinct now, leaving only us 
But thanks to our bad habits, we may join them soon enough 

So we are Homo sapiens but let us not forget
The reason we were given our specific epithet 
We earned it for our wisdom, we earned it for our brain 
Let fear and hatred never trump our consciousness again 

Some Helpful Definitions: 

  1. eukaryote: any organism whose organelles (i.e. nucleus) are bound in a membrane (i.e., animals, plants and fungi). As opposed to prokaryotes (Bacteria and Archaea) which lack membrane-bound organelles and have free-floating DNA. 
  2. Archaea: single-celled, extremophile, prokaryotic (lacking membrane-bound organelles) microorganisms 
  3. metazoan: multicellular, eukaryotic organisms (= animals) 
  4. heterotroph: an organism that must obtain food and energy from external organic sources, as opposed to an autotroph (i.e., plant) that can synthesize its own food from inorganic substances and light or chemical energy 
  5. chordate: an animal in the phylum Chordata which has a vertebral column (backbone) 
  6. monotreme: a primitive group of mammals that lay large, yolky eggs. The only extant examples are the platypus and four species of echidnas

28 comments

  • elisabeth Null
    elisabeth Null
    Great. Now where's the tune?

    Great. Now where's the tune?

  • The Vox Hunters
    The Vox Hunters
    Glad you liked it Lisa. There's a rough recording linked to al the end of the article. Here is the link: http://logamp.com/1808/music/tracks/7264

    Glad you liked it Lisa. There's a rough recording linked to al the end of the article. Here is the link:
    http://logamp.com/1808/music/tracks/7264

  • Suzanne Mrozak
    Suzanne Mrozak
    Great! Thanks much. Love it! Am passing it along to the Temporal Ecology folks I work with at the Arboretum :-)

    Great! Thanks much. Love it! Am passing it along to the Temporal Ecology folks I work with at the Arboretum :-)

  • Ben Kramarz
    Ben Kramarz Brooklyn, New York
    Ken Schatz sang this song at Exceedingly Good Song Night in Brooklyn last Sunday and I was stunned by how incredible it is. Excellent work! The song has now been stuck in my head for a week. Please let me know when you have made a high quality recording of it. www.benkramarz.com

    Ken Schatz sang this song at Exceedingly Good Song Night in Brooklyn last Sunday and I was stunned by how incredible it is. Excellent work! The song has now been stuck in my head for a week. Please let me know when you have made a high quality recording of it. www.benkramarz.com

  • The Vox Hunters
    The Vox Hunters
    Hi Ben, thanks for the kind words! We're flattered that Ken has learned it :) We'll be heading into the recording studio in one week, and you can expect it on the album. We're hoping it will all be ready by April. Fingers crossed!

    Hi Ben, thanks for the kind words! We're flattered that Ken has learned it smile We'll be heading into the recording studio in one week, and you can expect it on the album. We're hoping it will all be ready by April. Fingers crossed!

  • Columbine
    Columbine Waltham, MA
    Woke up humming this one this morning. It is GLORIOUS, and I need to learn it.

    Woke up humming this one this morning. It is GLORIOUS, and I need to learn it.

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    I've almost got it memorized. I have the CD, and transcribing the words and the tune (I can read and write music) helped get it in my head. I've also rewritten a bit - folk process! - e.g. "'specific' epithet" didn't stick in my head, so I substituted "distinctive." People who like this song might check out Howard Kaplan's blog, www.thrinberry-frog.com (don't ask!). Some of his songs are just weird, but some are wonderful. And there's "The Word of God," by Catherine Faber. Most of her songs are filk - folk/science fiction - but this one is science. The last verse ends: "Humans wrote the Bible, God wrote the world!"

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