ON JANUARY 3RD, 1971, New York Times critic Harold Schonberg summed up the previous year’s highlights. In music, 1970 was surely the year of the whale. Luminaries from classical, popular, and folk music were so turned-on by this amazing sound that they began to integrate it into their own work up here in the human world, safe on dry land. The first classical work to make use of whale sounds was Alan Hovhaness’s ‘And God Created Great Whales’. Judy Collins had a hit song with ‘Farewell to Tarwathie’, and Pete Seeger wrote a consciousness-raising rousing tune in a minor key, ‘The Song of the World’s Last Whale’.

I’d heard the first two, but what about that Pete Seeger song? A quick internet search did conjure up the lyrics:

It was down off Bermuda

Early last spring,

Near an underwater mountain

Where the humpbacks sing,

I lowered a microphone

A quarter mile down,

Switched on the recorder

And let the tape spin around.

I didn’t just hear grunting,

I didn’t just hear squeaks,

I didn’t just hear bellows,

I didn’t just hear shrieks.

It was the musical singing

And the passionate wail

That came from the heart

Of the world’s last whale.

This song seemed quite different from the others of its time. It’s all about how whale song was first recorded and discovered, and how the music happens. At the end, it does return to a morality tale:

So here’s a little test

To see how you feel,

Here’s a little test

For this Age Of The Automobile.

If we can save

Our singers in the sea,

Perhaps there’s a chance

To save you and me.

I heard the song

Of the world’s last whale

As I rocked in the moonlight

And reefed the sail,

It’ll happen to you

Also without fail,

If it happens to me

Sang the world’s last whale.

(lyrics © Storm King Music ASCAP, used by permission)

Seeger got all the details right, the microphone deep under the sea, the rocking, rhythmical beat of the boat swaying back and forth and the whale poetry resounding and repeating underneath. Never recorded? I was shocked. Pete Seeger lives just up the road from me, so I wondered if I might rectify that situation – let’s record it today.

We had recently performed on the same bill in Toronto, so I gave him a call. “You remember that song about the world’s last whale?”

“What song?” a scratchy voice on the other end of the line sounded suspicious.

“Goes like this: ‘I heard the song of the world’s last whale…’”

“Ah yes, you know my mind doesn’t remember it, but I believe in muscle memory. My body’s still got that tune.”

“You want to sing it?”

“I’m eighty-seven years old – too old to sing. But you, you should come on down to the Hudson riverfront and play some of those whale songs of yours while the swimmers cross the river from the other side. They’re going to love it.”

“I’ll do that if you sing the song.”

“What song?”

“‘The World’s Last Whale.’”

“Oh, we’ll see about that.”

The next weekend I ambled down to the waterfront festival in the nearby town of Beacon. Pete started the Great Newburgh-to-Beacon Hudson River Swim four years ago to remind us that this river has gotten clean enough to jump in. He wanted to celebrate some environmental good news, and raise money to build a lined swimming pool in the river to make it safe enough for all.

I had done my homework, found out that in 1988 a humpback whale had actually swum up the Hudson River. Why not play some of its songs to inspire swimmers just finishing their mile long crossing? I asked a question of the crowd, “How many of you know what a whale sounds like?” The parents and grandparents smiled.

I pressed ‘play’ on my computer, and the swoops and bowed bass notes resounded from the speakers from the stage. The range is tremendous, from the bowed bass beats of a giant subsurface fiddle to the feedback squelches of a paraelectric guitar. Each note is solid, emphatic, determined, beaming with feeling. It is one of the greatest sounds in the animal world, and very few people had heard it until the end of the 1960s, when Pete Seeger wrote this long-lost song.

When the human world first heard these sounds, our sense of whales suddenly changed. It was the song of the humpback whale that made us take notice and begin to care about these largest of animals that ever lived on Earth. We would never have been inspired to try to save the whale without being touched by its song.

The world of whale sounds reverberates deep under the sea, from hundreds of metres to hundreds of miles. It’s completely alien to the soundscape of humanity, shouting and singing up in the air, where songs and speech can’t dream of carrying so far. Under the surface lie deep booming patterns, and perhaps music can help us make sense of it where words and logic fail. No one who hears these darkly beautiful tones for themselves can easily forget them. Upon hearing the great song for the first time, whale activist Roger Payne said he heard the size of the ocean, “as if I had walked into a dark cave to hear wave after wave of echoes cascading back from the darkness beyond… That’s what whales do, give the ocean its voice.”

I accompanied on clarinet, trying to play sounds that would blend. It was a bit of a change from the usual river festival folk tunes, but the swimmers and their families didn’t seem to mind. A tall, rail-thin man with a beard pushed his way to the stage with a banjo and a big pile of papers. “You know, I had totally forgotten about this song until this young man brought it back to my attention,” Pete nodded in my direction. “Here are some copies of the words, and I wrote out the music, too. These whales still need our protection. Anyone who wants to keep this song alive, here, take a copy.”

Can Pete Seeger still sing after sixty years on the road? More than once I’ve heard him go on unaccompanied for an hour at a time. This lilting, grooving tune in a doleful key reveals exactly what the song of the humpback whale meant for us when it first became known: In the 1960s, miraculous underwater recordings revealed there is music under the sea, and we learned of one more rare thing of Nature that was fading away. If we don’t work hard to save this song that is so radiant yet also fragile, we’re going to disappear just like the whales. It’s a simple moral from a beautiful sound.

An excerpt from Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound (Basic Books/Perseus UK 2008).

David Rothenberg is the author of Why Birds Sing (Penguin 2005), which was turned into a television documentary by BBC4 and is published in six languages. He will be playing at the Royal Opera House’s Voices of the World Festival on July 22nd in Covent Garden, and on the 24th, he will be at the Royal Institution, also in London. www.thousandmilesong.com