He Writes Songs to Give the Planet a Voice

Marion, Mass., native plays music to inspire environmental advocacy

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

Penn Johnson, an Old Rochester Regional High School graduate, calls his music new-age folk, and he writes songs about environmental protections. (Tim Garlington)

Penn Johnson, an Old Rochester Regional High School graduate, calls his music new-age folk, and he writes songs about environmental protections. (Tim Garlington)

Living and working in the shale fields of Pennsylvania was both depressing and frustrating. The people Penn Johnson spoke with were sick, tired or both. The stories he wrote seldom had a happy ending.

After graduating from Franklin & Marshall College, a four-year liberal arts college in Lancaster, Pa., last May with a joint major in environmental studies and creative writing, Johnson was having a hard time finding a job. He finally found work with a start-up group called the Energy Justice Network in Montrose, Pa., about 170 miles to the north. The pay was minimal — free food, a place to stay and a small grant — but the Marion, Mass., native would be writing.

Montrose, a small borough in the northeast corner of Pennsylvania in Susquehanna County, is home to about 1,600 people. It’s also in the epicenter of the shale-gas boom.

The Marcellus is the largest and fastest growing shale gas area in the country, and more than half of its 50 most productive wells were drilled in Susquehanna County. In fact, Susquehanna and neighboring Bradford County produce some 40 percent of all Marcellus Shale gas.

Johnson spent much of his six months working for the Energy Justice Network speaking with those negatively impacted by hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking. He wrote press releases and blog posts, conducted interviews and attended pubic meetings.

“Being there doesn’t seem like reality,” Johnson, 23, said. “The natural-gas industry has done a great job painting fracking in a glorified light. But this is dangerous stuff. There are generations of people getting cancer and asthma, and all FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) does is rubber stamp all these pipelines."

During his free time in Montrose, Johnson took to playing the guitar and singing with friends to distract him from the shale fields.

At Franklin & Marshall College, Johnson helped start a divestment group that hoped to convince the school to remove its endowment investments from fossil-fuel companies. The student group got a meeting with the trustees, but that was about it.

“They were on their phones, checking their e-mail on their laptops and tablets. They weren’t paying attention,” Johnson said. "They weren’t interested."

His first album, ‘For The Trees,’ was inspired by his time in the shale fields of Pennsylvania and the urgency of climate change. (Artwork by Mike Bailey of Newport, R.I.)

His first album, ‘For The Trees,’ was inspired by his time in the shale fields of Pennsylvania and the urgency of climate change. (Artwork by Mike Bailey of Newport, R.I.)

Since he was a sophomore at Franklin & Marshall, Johnson said he has been interested in writing about the human connection to nature. He’s still writing about fossil-fuel consumption, fracking, littering, polluting, environmental protections, and social and environmental injustices. He’s just using a different medium, moving from stories and blog posts to songs. In less than a year, Johnson said he has written 45 songs.

In January, he recorded his first album, “For The Trees,” which he said was inspired by his time in the shale fields and the urgency of climate change. The eight-song, acoustic album is scheduled to be released April 20, and Johnson is scheduled to perform April 25 during Brown University’s Earth Week.

Johnson, a graduate of Old Rochester Regional High School in Mattapoisett, Mass., refers to his songs as new-age folk, and points to Arlo Guthrie and Todd Snider as inspiration for his music. He said his song writing was inspired by the lack of environmental/social justice action in today’s world.

“The Earth is a living, breathing organism and we need to protect her,” Johnson said. “And most of the problems are not being documented, discussed or reported. The American Dream is nothing more than an advertisement feeding an addiction of consumption. When the power grid crashes and the lights go out, I’ll be sitting in the dark strumming away.”

Click here to watch a YouTube performance by Penn Johnson.