“God Help the World”
Night Owl – 1970
Just around noon on June 22, 1969, a small section of the Cuyahoga River caught fire as it rolled through Cleveland. Though the blaze would last only half-an-hour – causing $50,000 in damages to a pair of railroad trestles – this brief event would ultimately represent a significant turning point in the modern environmental movement.
In actuality, the incident barely even registered in the local news. Over a then-century of Cleveland’s life as an industrial powerhouse, the Cuyahoga had caught fire at least ten times, with the 1969 blaze standing among the least destructive. However, in the context of the late-sixties, the episode quickly became a rallying cry for environmental stewards nationwide. National Geographic and Time ran stories on the incident (the latter using images from a 1952 Cuyahoga blaze in the absence of a period-appropriate one), and the hellish vision of a burning river helped to secure passage of the most significant environmental policy in American history to date; Congress authorized the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency less than seven months after the fire.
The same imagery that had pushed even a reluctant Richard Nixon into signing meaningful environmental legislation would eventually be immortalized in song. In 1972, Randy Newman would use it for Sail Away‘s “Burn On” (“‘Cause the Cuyahoga River / Goes smokin’ through my dreams“); fourteen years later, R.E.M. did the same for Lifes Rich Pageant‘s centerpiece, “Cuyahoga” (“Up underneath the river bed we’ll burn the river down“).
The Cuyahoga fire was undoubtedly on the mind of Dubuque, Iowa high schooler, Tom Sheehan, when he wrote “God Help the World” as part of a class project. While on paper the prose reads like the work of the earnest-yet-naive teenager that it was, Sheehan’s project was afforded a greater sense of gravity when he ventured to Sauk City, Wisconsin’s Cuca Records studio in the spring of 1970.
Cuca had been founded in 1959 by Jim Kirchstein, who would offer the use of his studio (on generous financial terms) to enterprising artists and groups in the so-called Driftless Area of southwestern Wisconsin and its neighboring states. It was the kind of place that a high-schooler could walk into on a weekday and record an original composition that could promptly be pressed to vinyl. The thing is, there are precious few recordings that demonstrate the value of such an endeavor in as affecting a manner as “God Help the World.”
Befitting of someone who (apparently) only entered a recording studio one time, there is little information to be found about Tom Sheehan, the singer-songwriter. The liner notes to the Numero Group’s 2021 compilation, Driftless Dreamers: In Cuca Country, merely mention that Sheehan was inspired by Rachel Carson’s epochal Silent Spring, wrote “God Help the World” with a classmate, and would eventually work as a seasonal park ranger. There’s no mention if the track’s ethereal choral vocals were recorded by an ensemble, or if they were the result of Sheehan’s multi-tracked voice (the latter seems more likely). There’s no mention of any local radio play or subsequent recording sessions by Sheehan. It seems as if Sheehan entered Cuca’s studio, recorded the song – and its similarly-themed-but-less-rewarding B-side, “Garbage Can Song” – paid his nominal fee, and moved on with his life.
Over its two decades of operation, a wide mix of local polka groups, country songsmiths, and even a few more polished groups from Chicago would record at Cuca – and see their music released on its variety of subsidiary labels. However, the fruits of Tom Sheehan’s lone session are completely devoid of a connection to any scene. Instead, they merely represent a kid and his sincere plea for a better world.