When you think of Americans whose music has made a lasting difference, you might think of Scott Joplin, Woody Guthrie, Maybelle Carter, Harry Belafonte … or Roger Payne.

Who? I came across Payne in a June obituary reporting that he’d died at age 88

Yes, I occasionally scan the obits, not out of morbid curiosity, but because these little death notices encompass our people’s history, reconnecting us to common lives that had some small or surprisingly large impact.

Payne’s impact is still reverberating around the globe, even though few know his name. A biologist who studied moths, in the 1960s he chanced upon a technical military recording of undersea sounds that incidentally included a cacophony of baying, shrieking, mooing, squealing, and caterwauling. 

They were the voices of humpback whales. 

What others had considered noise “blew my mind,” Payne said, describing them as a musical chorus of “exuberant, uninterrupted rivers of sound.” His life’s work shifted from moths to whales and finally to the interdependence of all species.

At the time, whales were treated by industry and governments as dull, lumbering nuisances. But Payne’s musical instincts came into play, sensing that the “singing” of these magnificent mammals might reach the primordial soul of humans. 

So he collected their rhythmic, haunting melodies into a momentous 1970 recording titled Songs of the Humpback Whale. It became a huge best-seller, altered public perception, and spawned a global “Save the Whales” campaign — one of the most successful conservation movements ever.

Without writing or performing a single musical note, this scientist produced a truly powerful serenade from nature that continues to make a difference. 

To connect with Roger Payne’s work and help extend his deep understanding that all of us beings are related, contact the global advocacy group he founded, Ocean Alliance, at whale.org.

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Jim Hightower

OtherWords columnist Jim Hightower is a radio commentator, writer, and public speaker. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.

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