Profiles of Pacific Northwest Activists: Dana Lyons
by Richard Jehn
Editor's Note: This is the first of what I hope will be a long-running series for Whatcom Watch. I was thrilled when Dana Lyons was playing at a friend’s party early last fall. I had the pleasure of listening to a couple of short sets of his music and then was fortunate to have a conversation with him before leaving the party. He gave me his card and I promised I would call. I’m not sure I had conceived of this particular idea yet, conducting interviews to be transcribed into print, but I know I wanted to do something with Dana having seen him perform a few times. The stories Dana tells in this interview that will run over two issues of the Watch are marvelous and compelling. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed gathering them.
Dana Lyons is the singer/songwriter best known for his dynamic performances and outrageous hit songs “Cows With Guns,” “RV” and “Ride The Lawn.” Bringing together a mix of comedy, ballads and love songs, Dana’s sharp wit and beautiful voice have him performing at concert halls, festivals, conventions, fundraisers and universities across the U.S. and around the world. Dana has toured in 46 of the 50 American states, around the East Coast of Australia and across Ireland, England, New Zealand, Mexico, Kazakhstan and Siberia. Dana was born in Kingston, New York. He graduated from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. He has lived in Washington since 1985.
What do you suppose it was about your upbringing, your childhood, and events from your personal history that set you on a path of musical environmental activism?
Both my parents are musical. My father was actually a crooner in front of a big band when he was a young man. He went down to New York City to do that. And my mother was a song-leader and a camp counselor at summer camp, and to this day walks around humming and making up goofy little tunes. I’m kind of a combination of the two musically.
In terms of my interest in environment and social justice, I’ve been aware of and very focused on issues of fairness and justice since I was very little. We used to play in the apple orchard behind our house. And then when developers bulldozed that apple field when I was 10 and wrecked my tree fort, I’ve been working to stop expanding developers ever since. So it’s just kind of a natural for me. I’m not against all development, but I’m against development that’s going to wreck beautiful places, important habitats, and important places in certain communities. So I’ve been doing it since I was little.
You have eight albums out, I believe with a ninth coming soon. Can you talk about the new album a little? And all of your albums if you like.
The new album will be called “The Great Salish Sea.” We’re just finishing up the recording of it right now and working on the album cover. I have to get it mastered and pressed and all that. I’m hoping it will come out in February 2014. And I think it’s a beautiful album, but of course, the songs are my babies, so I think they’re all beautiful.
Casey Neill from Portland is an old friend of mine and a great musician. He’s producing the album and he says he likes albums that have a theme. I was unaware of any theme in this album. He said really the theme running in this new album is a populist theme, a people-power theme – people rising up to overcome some situation. And I think he’s right.
There are songs like the title track, “The Great Salish Sea,” which comes from the point of view of the orca: the orcas facing the noise from these big ships, how they can’t hear each other, and how that’s endangering them. There’s a song about a tiny native village in Alaska trying to stop a giant coal mine in the river where the salmon come back every year, which would destroy their ability to live there.
A whole bunch of songs are like that. Songs about different people working, needing the water out in dry areas, engineers needing the water for power, fishermen needing the water for the salmon, the farmers needing the water for their crops, that kind of thing. That’s a theme that runs throughout.
Two songs on the album are from Hawaii. Actually, it’s kind of a Ring of Fire album. There are songs from Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, California, and Hawaii. My last album, “Three-Legged Coyote,” had quite a bit from the southern hemisphere, two songs from Australia and two from Chile. A number of the songs which weren’t based in Australia were written in Australia on that album, too.
You started in the 1980s with songs like “Our State Is a Dumpsite” and today you sing pieces such as “Cane Toad Muster” and the “Label GMO Disco.” Tell us about the evolution you see in your music and in your politics.
Before we started this interview, you showed me the video1 you had found of me singing “Our State Is a Dumpsite” in 1989, and I’m not sure my music has changed that much. It’s still pretty silly and goofy.
I guess I’ve always used humor. My concerts are maybe a quarter or a third humor and the rest are ballads and love songs. I love using humor, because some things, the topics are just hard. We all get lectured all the time and if you can tell a joke, and everyone can laugh and think, “Yea, humans are pretty stupid. Yea, we blew that one.” But if you can do it in a friendly way, where people can reflect and say to themselves “you know, maybe we ought to try to do that better.” I try to write my humorous songs so that people on both sides of the issue, while they may not all agree with me, will at least find it funny and begin the discussion.
“Our State Is a Dumpsite“ is the title track of my first album. In the mid-‘80s, they wanted to ship the commercial nuclear waste from nuclear power plants in the east and dump it all here in Washington state. I just thought, “That’s ridiculous. Why should we take that?” And we ran a referendum and 84 percent of the people voted against the dump and we beat it, which I’m very proud of. I’m proud of our state.
And now, one of my latest two videos, “Cane Toad Muster,” I wrote about the exotic cane toad in Australia. It’s a funny song, but it’s a really serious issue. Cane toads, originally from South America, were introduced in Queensland, Australia to kill the cane beetle in sugarcane fields. They didn’t eat the beetles, but ate everything else. And now the cane toads are covering half of Australia. And when they first show up, anything that eats a cane toad dies. And so when the cane toads show up, all the big lizards die, all the snakes die, any birds that eat a toad or a frog die, dogs die, dingos die. So in the period of a week, ALL the major wildlife is wiped out. It’s like a biblical plague. It’s really horrifying. And people over there are trying to stop it, so I wrote a song to draw attention to the issue, poke some fun.
And then my current humorous song, “Label GMO Disco,” is on YouTube right now. It’s a Village People takeoff and I play three of the Village People and a bunch of fruits and vegetables. And I also play a salesman who’s saying “Oh, man, genetically-modified stuff, it’s all great.” That’s to raise awareness about the whole genetically-modified food issue, and I’m hoping that people will watch and think, “You know, the least we can do is label this, we have a right to know.”
How my politics have changed over the years, I’m not sure that they’ve changed that much. I really want to work for the community, the whole community, the human community, as well as the plants and animals, the place where we live. I choose the issues I work on differently now. Now we are historically in a very new situation where, from my observation, the industrial civilization is overreaching so far, the resource users and extractors have used up all the easy stuff. So now they’re going for the hard to reach stuff, and in order to get the hard to reach stuff, they have to destroy entire watersheds and crush entire communities.
I saw this all over Australia — fracking. They’re fighting fracking in Australia. The tar sands in Alberta — destroying an immense, immense region, something the size of the state of Connecticut. But what’s unique now is that the resource extractors are destroying so much that they are also starting to destroy the livelihoods of the towns nearby. And I wasn’t sure if humanity would ever stick up for itself. Humanity in general doesn’t seem to be able to figure out there’s an environmental problem that they have to do something about. They can’t seem to get organized around that.
But when their livelihood is threatened, when the water that cows drink can be poisoned, the farmers and the ranchers understand what that means. If the water gets poisoned, the cows won’t drink it. Game over. Four generations on your farm is over. What I witnessed in Australia and what we witnessed in Nebraska with the farmers and the ranchers fighting the Keystone pipeline — when they realized that their livelihood will be destroyed — they will fight and succeed.
So now when I choose my battles, I look for issues that unify people. In the ‘80s, there were six of us chained to a bulldozer, and everyone was mad at us as we were trying to save some trees. We were just this tiny group, we were always the minority. But now, the onslaught is so great that it unifies. Like my recent coal train tour, most of my shows I would guess, well I know, had Democrats and Republicans in the audience. And not everyone agreed with me on everything, but the one thing we all agreed on was we were going to stop coal export, we’re going to beat this. We’re going to team up on this and then we can go argue about the other issues later on.
Your early national touring was to publicize the Hanford facility as a nuclear dumpsite and to campaign “Yes on 40.” The tour brought us the song, but more importantly, it brought national publicity to this important issue. Can you elaborate on details of the tour and what results you feel were gained?
That was my first major tour. I think it was in January of 1986. There were two legs of the tour, both of which I did with my brother Zach. The first leg of the tour we drove from Boston to Seattle and then on down to Olympia, on Interstate 90. We called it the I-90 tour. We were co-sponsored by the International Firefighters’ Union, which was concerned about the hauling of nuclear waste to Hanford. The Department of Energy said that one truckload of nuclear waste would go through every town every 90 minutes for 25 years. That’s a little scary to me. With the help of friends, we took a 55-gallon drum and put a big radioactive symbol on it and then put a big X through (meaning “not-radioactive”), and built a little rack for my brother’s Buick station wagon that we could put this barrel on. Then we drove across the country and went in January to dramatize the situation, because one of the lines I wanted to say at the press conference was, I just wanted to joke, “I realize there are never any accidents here in January.” We would hold press conferences in front of schools and hospitals, and at toll booths, and I would just say, “Do you want a truckload of nuclear waste coming through here every 90 minutes for the next 25 years?”
And part of the purpose of the tour was, I hoped that we in Washington would beat it, but in case we didn’t beat it in Washington, I wanted to stop it en route in a politically stronger state. We would show up at each town and I would call the fire department, tell them what we were doing. We didn’t have any press conferences set up ahead of time. We would show up, we would park, we would call the three TV stations and the newspaper, and say, “Yeah, we’re down here at such-and-such a toll booth. We’ll be here for about an hour, we’ve got a fake barrel of nuclear waste on the car, and did you know there’s going to be a truckload of nuclear waste coming through every 90 minutes?” A typical reaction was, “What, we didn’t know that!”
Probably the most moving moment for me on the tour happened in Buffalo, New York. For those of you who haven’t been to the New York State Thruway toll booths in Buffalo, there are twelve of them and they were painted yellow and blue at that time. But we pulled off there, found a pay phone, and called up the news media. We were waiting there by the side in front of the toll booths because I wanted to get an angle so they could see the New York State Thruway. And all three networks came and the newspaper came, and we were waiting for them to show up and these three state troopers come over. And I’m saying to my brother, “Uh, oh. We might be getting a ticket here.” And they come over and they say, “Hey, what are you doing?” And I say, “Well, we’re on tour talking about the nuclear waste that’s going to come through here if they put the dump out at Hanford, Washington. We’re co-sponsored by the International Firefighters’ Union, and we want to alert people to the dangers, and hopefully we can stop this.” And they’re looking at us, and they say, “Wait here.” They went about 15 feet away, and they talked, and they came back and said, “We appreciate what you’re doing and we want to help.” And then they explained that they had lost two of their friends in a tragic highway accident that involved a truck carrying chemicals that wasn’t labeled properly. You can see whether a truck is loaded with petroleum, chemicals, radioactivity, or whatever; there’s a little sign on the trucks and this truck wasn’t labeled, and the troopers didn’t know, they got up close, and they were killed because of that. So these troopers said, “We appreciate what you’re doing, and we think that we want to give you the best backdrop possible for your press conference, so we’re going to shut down half the toll booths, and bring you right out into the highway with the toll booths directly behind you to do the press conference.” And they did. They shut down half the toll booths. And I thought, “This is great!”
Could you tell us the story of the “Ancient Forest Rescue Expedition,” Mitch Friedman of Conservation Northwest, and the 750-year-old Douglas fir, especially the moments you arrived in downtown Cleveland, Ohio? Tell us also about other memorable events during that trip.
That was an amazing trip. That was Mitch Friedman’s vision. And I’ll never forget — we were living together at the time and he came up and he asked, “What do you think it would cost to haul an old-growth tree on a semi around the country?” And I did a little quick math, and asked how long. “About two months.” I bet it would cost about $35,000 bucks — ended up costing about $36,000, and I was very proud of myself how close my estimate was. But we had one of our friends pose as an art aficionado and he wanted to buy an old-growth tree to do a giant sculpture, because if they knew it was us buying it, nobody would sell it to us because we were all working on old-growth issues. So our friend Abe went and bought this tree for I think it was $4,000. Seven-hundred and fifty year-old log, tree, seven-and-a-half feet in diameter, it was huge. You know, I think your width limit on a semi is eight feet. So that’s the biggest tree we could get on this semi, flatbed. And it was huge.
I think at least 50 people volunteered on the tour, and we all took legs, we went all around the United States. You know, we had volunteer truck drivers and the whole nine yards. It was hilarious. I did two legs of the tour – I did the Deep South, and then I was also up in the Midwest. In the ‘80s, people didn’t know that the old-growth trees were being cut down. Our goal was just to alert people, because people love these big trees. We felt if they knew, that the people of America would rise to stop it, and they did.
This is my favorite story of the tour. We were in Columbus, Ohio the night before, I think. And we were saying, “We don’t have anything planned in Cleveland. Cleveland’s an important city.” So we’re out there at eight in the morning, it’s the middle of rush hour. We said, “Well, let’s just go into Cleveland and see what happens.” So we went right into downtown Cleveland with this huge truck, and it’s hard to drive in the middle of a big city. And we get to the city square and the driver said, “I don’t know where to put this thing, I’m just putting it over there.” And he pulled into a bus lane next to a park, and I’m thinking, “How big is this ticket going to be? Oh my God, we are breaking so many laws at this moment.”
And I looked out of the window of the semi, and here come from all different directions, seven police officers. Okay, here we go. The word went out — we had a front car with a bunch of us and the rest of us were in the semi, and we were on the CB. “Get out and hand out leaflets and look like we’re supposed to be here.” So we did, and the first officer gets there, I don’t know, 30 seconds after we arrive and he comes up and he says, “What is that? Is that a redwood?” And we said, “No, no, it’s a Douglas fir, it’s 750 years old.” “Seven-hundred and fifty years old. Why in God’s name did you cut it down?” “Oh, well, we didn’t cut it down. We’re actually on a tour, trying to let people know that they’re being cut down in Washington and Oregon, and trying to raise awareness.” “Really, that’s fantastic.” And then he said, ”Would you mind if I climb up there? I just want to feel that bark.” “Sure,” so he hops up there.
Next police officer arrives. “What is that? Is that a redwood?” “No, no, it’s a Douglas fir. It’s 750 years old. We’re on this tour.” “Really. That’s amazing. They’re cutting those things down. That’s awful. Can I get up and take a look at it.” Meanwhile, there’s a crowd gathering and we’re handing out the leaflets.
Next officer arrives, “Is that a redwood?” “No, that’s a Douglas fir.” “Really?”
And then the NBC affiliate shows up. “Is that a redwood?” “No, that’s a Douglas fir. They’re cutting these down.” “They’re cutting those down. We’re gonna rake these guys over the coals.” He said that. That’s a direct quote from the TV reporter from NBC in Cleveland.
So pretty soon, all the officers are there, there are seven police officers climbing on this giant log. There’s a crowd of 300 spilling out into other lanes of traffic. We’re creating this bottleneck.
And another police officer arrives and asks, “Is that a redwood?” “No, it’s a Douglas fir.” And I go through the line. And he asks, “Well, what are you guys doing about it?” “Well, you know, we’re holding press conferences, we’re doing concerts, we’re handing out leaflets, and we’re trying to let people know.”
And he goes, “Well, I was just at the back of the crowd, and there’s no one back there handing out leaflets. You guys are pretty inefficient. Gimme those things.” And he goes out and hands out the leaflets.
Cleveland is why we were able to stop, for the most part (there’s still some cutting of old-growth), much of the old-growth logging in Washington and Oregon. Because Americans love the land, they love those big trees, they understand that there are some forests that are very special and need to be protected. We aren’t against logging of certain areas with reasonable impact on the land and on the environment, but the ancient trees, there’s just no reason for it. Ninety-six percent of the old growth forests were cut in Washington.
That was a beautiful moment in Cleveland.
Can you tell us about the Ozone Tour with Greenpeace?
The Ozone Tour — I’ve done a lot of these big tours. I don’t think about them all the time. I’m usually just so very focused on the current tour I’m messing with, which seems at the moment impossible to pull off. I forget that I’ve actually done this before.
The Ozone Tour: so back in the early nineties, everyone was using chloro-fluorocarbons in their aerosol cans. Basically, these CFCs were going up and destroying the ozone layer. This was probably the only environmental success we’ve had on a global level, where the whole world got together and decided to ban CFCs. And the ozone layer has responded.
Now, of course climate change is a different issue, but nonetheless if the whole world did something and responded for the ozone, maybe if we got our acts together for climate change, it would respond that way, too. It’s hard to say. The earth is a big complex organism.
But on the Ozone Tour, we played mostly colleges and little places all up and down the East Coast. We were doing a boycott of Tropicana Orange Juice. I should say, to my knowledge, there’s no need to boycott them now. We were successful, the whole campaign was successful. That was in the ‘80s so you can enjoy your Tropicana as far as I know.
But the reason: Tropicana at that time was owned by Seagram’s Whiskey, and Seagram’s Whiskey owned DuPont, which was the largest maker of CFCs in the world. And so Greenpeace’s strategy at that time was to try to use public pressure to get Seagram’s to sell DuPont, to make it economically difficult to sell CFCs and to make it socially embarrassing.
And so we toured all over doing our little boycott thing and having little rallies. And meanwhile, Greenpeace was lobbying people who knew the CEO at that time of Seagram’s. Seagram’s is based in Montreal. Also, Greenpeace took out two billboards with the face of the CEO of DuPont on them, one in Washington, DC and one in New York City, next to freeways. And they had the picture of the CEO, and the caption was, “Everyone is talking about the ozone layer; I’m destroying it,” with a nice smiling picture. And that made the front page of the business section of The New York Times and The Washington Post. CFCs were eventually banned. That was a successful campaign.
And so I did a little tour in relation to that. And another tour we did at a similar time was the Tour of the Dammed.
Can you tell us about the Tour of the Dammed?
Hydro Quebec, which is a company in Quebec and Ontario in Canada, wanted to build giant dams flooding huge amounts of land which was Cree Indian territory. And so we did a tour of New England states and New York. And some of my friends built a 200-foot dam out of sticks and bed-sheets that we would set up everywhere. It was just hilarious — we were called the Tour of the Dammed.
We toured colleges, coffee houses, and community centers. Our goal was to get New York and the New England states to cancel their electricity contracts with Hydro Quebec, to say they will cease purchasing electricity from Hydro Quebec unless they halted this dam. And we were successful in that. It was amazing. I forget which states we got first, but when we got New York, that was it. And I remember our action in New York is we had 200 people dressed up as caribou running into the reflecting pond in front of the New York state capitol, and then “drowning” in the reflecting pond. And that was big news. My aunt and uncle saw that on the TV and that was very funny.
But Governor Cuomo, Mario Cuomo, was up for reelection that year. I have a high degree of respect for Mario Cuomo, I always voted for him, but we felt that New York state was making a big mistake here. We did all the protests and New York hadn’t backed out of the contract yet. And so we let the Cuomo campaign know that we felt that this was a racist practice, this was going to destroy Cree Indian territory, leach mercury into the lakes, and poison Native Americans. And even though we knew the governor wasn’t racist, this was a racist practice, and unless they cancelled it we were going to show up at every press conference he did with a huge banner that said “Racist.” And they cancelled it the next week.
Sadly, some of those dams got built 20 years later. You know, these issues keep coming back, which is something that Jewell James of the Lummi spoke about at the ceremony at Cherry Point trying to stop the coal train. And something he said I really appreciated was, “They stopped this deep water port twenty years ago. We’re fighting to stop it now. I believe we will stop that port. But there are very few deep water ports. We have to buy it and we have to make it into a marine sanctuary.”
I believe we need to buy it and make it into a marine sanctuary and to make it into a Lummi Heritage area because of all those heritage sites and cemeteries. If we don’t do that, we’re going to be doing the same thing in another ten years.
On that note, dams, you participated in the ceremony when the Elwha Dam came down.
That was one of the great honors of my life to be able to sing at that ceremony. I sang my song “Drop of Water” at the ceremony when they began the demolition of the Elwha River dam in the Olympic National Park. And I moved to Washington State because of the Olympics. I applied three summers in a row to be a ranger there. I never got in, but I always wanted to live here and I moved here. To work so many years on different issues here, and then be invited to sing a song at that ceremony, that was an incredible honor.
The ceremony was right next to the dam, which was the appropriate place for it, but unfortunately it could only hold 450 people and if everyone who wanted to could come, there would have been tens of thousands because it was such an important moment for our region, really for our country. It’s the first time that the United States as a people chose to remove a large dam and for a myriad of reasons. And it was an incredible ceremony, and the Elwha Klallam Nation was very well represented there, and all of our elected officials were there - the Secretary of Interior, the Governor, and Senators. I was so excited that I didn’t sleep the night before. It was beautiful.
To get to the celebration place, we all had to cross the dam. And we were crossing the dam, and it had been beautifully decorated by art from children in Port Angeles. And you look down the downriver side of the dam, and you’re looking down about a hundred feet of cement, and at the bottom there’s a pool of water, and there were about sixty King salmon swimming around in that water, and every once in a while, one of them would bump its nose into that dam. They’ve been bumping their noses into that dam for a hundred years. And we all witnessed that and it was so powerful. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house the whole time.
It was a big deal. Removing that dam was honoring the treaty rights of the Elwha Klallam people. A lot of people went hungry because those dams went up. It’s freeing the salmon, one of the biggest salmon rivers in the region. That helps everybody. It’s going to help the fishermen, it’s going to help the salmon, the bears, the orcas. It was so beautiful.
And to watch our elected officials was incredible. It’s not easy being an elected official, especially if you’re an elected official who wants to do something good, because you have to vote on everything, whether you want to vote on it or not. And you have to compromise. It’s just part of the deal. And to see their body language, you could tell they were so thrilled to be doing something that was really good.
And I got to sing, my song was the last one. People can see a video of it on YouTube.2 It was a little bit awkward for me. I was accompanied by the choir of the Port Angeles High School, which was really cool, really fun. On stage in back of me, facing the audience were all the dignitaries, all the politicians. It’s awkward for me to perform with my back to someone. But I’ve been told if you look carefully in the video, Governor Gregoire is doing the air guitar with me at one point. And I’m right in front, I’m dancing it up, I’m shaking it. I’m right in front of the Secretary of Interior. It was funny. Then right afterwards, the head of the Parks Service got up there and said, “Now the Secretary of the Interior will give the order to begin the demolition.” I thought, “No way, no way.” I’m pinching myself.
Secretary of Interior Salazar picked up the megaphone and ordered the excavator to start demolishing the dam. And this huge excavator bashed the shovel into the dam, and cement chips flew everywhere, and the crowd was cheering. And I thought,” I can’t believe this.”
The interview with Dana Lyons continues with stories of his travels in Australia, the Great Salish Sea Tour starting in March 2014, other musical plans that Dana has in the near future, and his vision of key environmental and political developments in the coming twenty years.