Profiles of Pacific Northwest Activists: Dana Lyons
Editor's Note: This is part 2 of our interview with Dana Lyons. The stories Dana tells in this interview that have run over two issues of the Watch are marvelous and compelling. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed gathering them. We are also excited about an upcoming profile with another Northwest activist
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 was graduated from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. He has lived in Washington since 1985.
You’ve been to Australia. “Cows with Guns” is an enormous hit there. Can you talk about your Australian connection and the newer hit tune “Cane Toad Muster”?
I’ve been going to Australia for many years. I just love Australia. I love the outrageous animals, the huge, empty outback, and the endless beaches. I just like the Australian culture and the spirit of the Australian people – they just know how to have fun.
I first went to Australia with my friend John Seed, and we toured to protect the rainforests there. That was in 1989 or 1990. And then I’ve been going back a lot. I toured there quite a bit before “Cows with Guns” happened. And then, when “Cows with Guns” came out, it went to number 2 on the country charts in Australia. And now when I go to Australia, I can go out to these outback pubs in the middle of nowhere, and basically if the pub owner has heard of “Cows with Guns,” they’ll hire me, and if not, they won’t. So it’s an amazing way to travel around Australia.
This last tour, I went to Australia for three months, from mid-April to mid-July. That was a fascinating tour. I spent probably half the tour in Aboriginal territory, meeting with environmental and Aboriginal leaders all across the top end of Australia. I went in their winter, so I stayed in the north where it’s tropical and hot.
The first part of the tour was set up by the Kimberley Toad Busters. What does that mean? It is the oddest sounding environmental group name I’ve ever heard. They’re a group of 8,500 volunteers who go out weekly and collect cane toads, which are an exotic species. They were imported from South America to kill cane beetles in the sugar cane. And like so many of those human experiments bringing in exotic species, it’s a disaster. And they’re sweeping across the Kimberley (northwest corner of Australia) right now and that’s where the Kimberley Toad Busters are based. The head of the Kimberley Toad Busters asked me to write a song about the cane toads, which I did. And then ABC radio, which is the equivalent of the BBC or the CBC over there, they just picked it right up and it got a huge amount of radio play which is really fun. And people can see that on the YouTube.1 “Cane Toad Muster,” a very silly video which we filmed in Darwin.
And it was an amazing tour. I got to go to a number of Aboriginal communities, which was fascinating. I got invited to the most intact aboriginal cultural area, Arnhem Land, which is maybe a hundred miles east of Darwin. Stuey Kellaway, who’s the bass player for Australia’s most famous Aboriginal rock group Yothu Yindi, invited me to come up and do a show there. He and I have a lot in common. He’s a musician and he’s also a park ranger, very interested in the environment. He’s a European Australian, but he grew up with the guys in the band in a largely Aboriginal area.
Stuey was out with other rangers culling the water buffalo herd. Parts of northern Australia have an exotic buffalo species that roam the landscape destroying habitat, so periodically the rangers go out and cull the herd, kill them. While killing the buffalo from the helicopter “Cows with Guns” and “Cane Toad Muster” came on the radio, and Stuey said to the pilot, “We’ve got to bring this guy out here.”
Stuey took me to an Aboriginal village, and on our way back, we stopped at a beach where a family was fishing. They had a small fire going with a pot with a fish sticking out of it. And I didn’t see any other food. And after we left, I asked Stu how often do they do this and he said, “Three or four nights a week. This is the way the people live here. There’s so much food, all you need is a spear and a little bit of fishing line.” And children are taught how to spear fish from ten, twenty feet away from them when they’re four years old. It was a really remarkable thing to see. And the people there speak at least four languages. Some Aboriginal people speak thirteen languages because there are so many different language groups.
Another amazing thing I witnessed in Australia is the “Lock the Gate Movement.” This is incredible. I think it’s the most important current movement that I’ve seen in a democracy. Basically, to put it very succinctly, the farmers and the hippies are chaining themselves at the gates of their farms to keep fracking drill rigs from going in. It’s incredible. It’s actually somewhat similar to the coal train battle here, in that we have a coalition of people that has never existed before fighting the coal train.. We’ve got business people, and people who live along the tracks, and farmers, and Republicans, and Democrats, and environmentalists, and hippies, all working on it the whole way, all the way from Billings to Bellingham. It’s very interesting. I’ve never seen a coalition like that before.
The same thing is happening in Australia except it’s more intense. So in Australia, a private landowner can’t stop a drill rig from drilling — they don’t own their subsurface rights. So the drilling company can just show up and start drilling. The farmers decided they’re not going to let this happen. I spent four days meeting and interviewing people who are working on stopping fracking on their land. Probably the most interesting day was the day I was taken around by a farmer and introduced to ranchers and farmers. And I love this quote. He said, “I never thought I’d be friends with someone with dreadlocks.” He said, “When they came to drill in our valley, my neighbor came over at 5 in the morning and said, ‘We’re blockading.’ The whole valley went out and the hippies were already there. We stopped the drill rigs from going in that day. The next morning my nighbor came over and he said, ‘The hippies are still there! They’re standing for us. We can’t let them stand alone.’”
That blockade went on for three weeks. And the local police refused to arrest them because they knew that the fracking was wrong. The local judges would just let protestors off with a slap on the wrist. Using phone trees the local organizers could quickly turn out three hundred people who would show up at someone’s gate and lock down to each other. The government had to bring a riot squad of a hundred-eighty police up from Sydney, twelve hours away. And they couldn’t break them. The Sydney police were reluctant to go against the farmers also. Very interesting.
The farmer who took me around said, “I never wanted to be a public figure. I never wanted to be an activist. I just want to do my thing. I’m a shy person.” The tenth day, you can see this on YouTube,2 he goes out, they’ve arrested some of the people and they’re bringing the drill rig in. And the Australians have the quintessential Australian cowboy hat. It’s called an Akubra. You’ve seen it in the movies. They’re very expensive, 200 bucks and they become part of your character. This one was twenty years old. And he got out in front of the drill rig - he said he hadn’t planned this at all - and he gave a ten-minute speech, something which he had never done before. He says, “If you’re gonna bring this drill rig past us against our will, you’re gonna have to drive over my hat.” And he threw it on the ground in front of the truck. And then everybody threw their Akubras on the ground. In Australia that’s like driving over the flag. It’s like, “Whoa!“
The Akubra is the symbol of outback Australia. And then someone stuck an Australian flag in one of the hats. Then someone said, “Which one of you coppers is gonna be the first to remove that flag?” And then one of the police from Sydney said, “I’m not touching that flag.” Finally an officer moved the flag, and they drove over all the hats. And then the farmers blockaded the drill rig in, so it couldn’t leave. And they never ended up drilling. The farmers won.
And it’s going on all over Australia. To me, it’s actually the most hopeful I’ve been in my adult life because I didn’t know if we (humanity) would ever get our act together to take a stand. But when people’s livelihoods are threatened, they will stand.
The next day, I get a phone message from my farmer friend who took me around to the ranches. “I’m coming over.” He lives three hours away. He says, “I’ve got something for you.”
I had a show that night, but he arrived before the show started. And he gave me the hat. He said, “You’re here to help us, and I appreciate that. I want you to have this hat.” Then he said, “If I die, I want this hat placed in the grave with me.” And I replied, “Well, we can do that, but we might have to put you on ice for a couple of weeks while the hat gets shipped over there.”
Dana Poses Wearing the Akubra
This is the hat. You can see this was worn before it was driven over by the oil rig. Believe it or not, that used to be a proud cowboy hat. I actually consider this my most valuable possession because to me this symbolizes somebody sticking up for their community. This symbolizes real democracy: when the state and the federal governments in Australia sold the people out, then progressive people and conservative people all united. That’s what’s fascinating. Everyone belongs to “Lock the Gate” and they have these yellow triangle signs on their fences. And you drive through rural Australia, those yellow triangle signs are everywhere. I keep this hat on top of my globe to remind me what we can do, when we team up as a community.
Your most recent release is the “Label GMO Disco” video. How did you choose the melody, what prompted you to support “Yes on 522,” and what is your sense of the outcome?
The “Label GMO Disco” is to the tune of the Village People “YMCA.” I’m a huge Village People fan. I had already done a spoof of the Village People “YMCA” called “WTO Disco,” which came out in 1999 during the big Seattle WTO meeting. My friend Stephen Trinkhaus at Terra Organica was working on the labelling GMO issue, and he said, “Hey, rewrite ‘WTO Disco’ to be ‘Label GMO Disco.’” I thought, “That’s a great idea.” I worked on the song to craft a message that would be funny, but also focus on the real issues.
Absurdity of Genetic Engineering
The song talks about putting frog genes in fruit trees, mice genes in hogs, and human genes in rice. It just raises the absurdity of it. I think we have a right to know what’s in our food. I-522 isn’t banning GMOs; it would require labeling them. What’s wrong with labeling? In my life experience, when someone wants to keep something a secret, there’s a reason for that. Monsanto may be the most corrupt, bullying corporation in the world. They said DDT was safe. And it goes on and on and on. Many things they say are safe ends up being a terrible poison and they have to ban it a few years later. And I fear that GMO will be the same. But also in the song, I want to highlight the arrogance of these companies. It’s not just Monsanto — there’re a number of companies doing it — playing God: to take genetic material and then recombine it. And the really frightening thing about all this is that these changed genes can reproduce, and you can never put the genie back in the bottle. It’s grossly irresponsible.
That’s why I wanted to write something funny, where people could laugh and go “this is ridiculous and we need to label it.” So I did the video and I wanted to get it out a month before the election so it could circulate on YouTube.3 I’m very happy about the number of people who are watching it. It’s exciting. And I’m hoping it will raise consciousness on the issue. It’s all about voter turnout, and this is an off-year election and if the people who feel strongly about labeling GMO don’t bother to vote, we will lose, and if they do turn out to vote, we will win. It’s really that easy. On the coal port issue, I think we’re going to win that one. It’s going to be a long battle; we can never slack up. We have to chase these guys out of town basically, get them out of our region.
For the labeling initiative, chemical companies have put up $18 million so far. That’s never been spent on any election in the history of Washington. They’re going to put up a lot more — they want to confuse us, they want to scare us, they want us to vote no. To cause labeling of GMO in foods, you need to vote “Yes” on 522. We will see.
You mentioned the “Great Salish Sea Tour,” but said only a little about it. Let’s hear the full story.
My new album is called “The Great Salish Sea.” And that encompasses basically everywhere from Olympia north to about halfway up Vancouver Island. The song itself is about the orcas; it’s written from the perspective of the 100-year-old matriarch of the San Juan Island orcas. She’s called Granny. My friend Stephanie Buffum, who’s the executive director of the Friends of the San Juans, asked me to write this song and to write it from the perspective of Granny, and the changing sound of boats over her lifetime: from Native American canoes, to the sailing ships, to now the giant ships. One of the problems with the giant ships is the noise they create underwater. When the water is quiet, without giant ships going by, the orcas can talk to each other through song from 4 or 5 miles away. While we might whistle or yell to our kids across the playground, “Come on, it’s time for dinner,” they can talk to their kids in the next bay. When the ships are going, they’re so noisy that they can maybe hear each other 100 yards. So for all intents and purposes, it deafens them, they can’t communicate. It’s very dangerous for them.
If these coal ports go in, knocking out the herring, destroying the salmon, the noise, all this stuff, it could drive the orcas away from here. The symbol of our region – why? So we can move giant boats of coal from here to China. So we can move giant boats of tar sands oil from Alberta to China and other Asian countries. Why? It comes down to the old question, ”What do we get out of this deal?” besides it ruining our environment and chasing off the orca? The people of British Columbia and Washington need to unite to put a cap on the number of those big ships coming in and out of here. We need to figure out what’s reasonable for the orcas and everybody else, and cap it.
Totem Pole Journey United People and Issues
And the Lummi Indian Nation — Jewell James just did a tour the length of the coal train route and right on up to where the tar sands oil would be exported in Vancouver. Their tour helped unite the region and really tied both the coal export issue to the tar sands export issue, because it all affects our waterway.
On my “Great Salish Sea” tour I’ll be promoting my album and trying to play any town that will set up a show across Washington and British Columbia. I want to use the tour to help raise awareness about the effect of exporting coal, oil and natural gas on the orcas, and on us all. It’s going to be a lovely way to see the region and also, Bellingham is the epicenter of it, so in terms of commute, it’s really convenient.
Is it true that you are planning a tour to coincide with the release of the environmental impact statement for the Gateway Pacific Terminal project? Can you tell us about your plans? Is this a separate tour from the Great Salish Sea Tour?
Yes, like I did last year, 2012, from August to December I did what I called the “Great Coal Train Tour,” where I drove all the way from eastern Montana following the route of the train back here to Bellingham. I’m still doing coal train tour shows now. My album will come out soon, and then that will be the “Great Salish Sea Tour.”
I’m hoping we’re going to beat the coal port before the Environmental Impact Statement. I think that’s possible. But we might not. When the Environmental Impact Statement comes out — I’ve heard estimates of early 2015 — then there’ll be another round of hearings. I would then repeat the tour to try to help increase turn out to the hearings.
What else is in the works from Dana Lyons in the next year?
I’m working on two music videos, one for my “Salmon Come Home” song about Alaska, one for “The Great Salish Sea” about the orcas. I need to complete the album. The album is scheduled to be released in March. The Great Salish Sea tour could go on most of the year, if not longer. It’s a big area, and I’d like to hit all the San Juan Islands, all the Gulf Islands, all over Vancouver Island. I’ll be doing an assortment of house concerts and community halls, First Nations, colleges, elementary schools. That’s the next big project. That could go on for a couple of years.
One final, a wide-ranging question: what do you see as the key developments that will grab your attention in the next 20 years?
Wow. There are people everywhere, in every country, every latitude, every language, working to create a truly sustainable society. That effort is underway. I believe that as the industrial culture overreaches and threatens more and more of our bioregions and our watersheds, more and more communities, entire communities, will revolt. And when I say “entire communities,” I mean, you know, ‘greenies’ like me are going to be working arm-in -arm with my Tea Party neighbors, because while we might disagree on a whole bunch of things, we realize that our communities, our ability to make a living, our water is being wrecked. We’re not going to be able to grow food.
And so, over the next 20 years, I think that’s going to increase. And I think that’s the hope for humanity. And as a musician, as someone who cares about this stuff, as someone who can hopefully tell a good joke once in a while, I’m going to be looking for those issues that unite. Because, you know, you watch the TV news and they want to make you think, night after night after night, “you guys are polar opposites, you’re all divided, this stupid government shutdown, you’re all divided, you’re all divided.” And both sides are saying the same thing: “This is stupid.”
The reason they’re saying we’re all divided is because, in reality, we all have the same common interests. In reality, we’re not divided AT ALL. And the only way they can push their industrial profiteering over us, the only way they can come in and wreck the very land where we live and that we love, is to divide us. It’s the oldest trick in the book: divide and conquer.
So, the projects I want to be a part of are the projects that are going to unite everyone. And with their overreach, those are just going to be coming fast and furious. I anticipate that ALL the issues I work on from now on will be uniting issues just because of the time in history. And that’s really hopeful. It’s really hopeful. I’m excited to be a part of that.
We are the cusp generations at the peak of the industrial era and it’s starting to go down. And now we’ve got to use our creativity and our organizing skills to develop a truly sustainable culture. During the transition, our friends and neighbors, and ourselves are going to be laid off right and left, and we’re going to need to support each other. We’re going to figure it out. Because these outside forces are pushing us around and they don’t care about how our communities survive. Well, we do. And we intend to survive and stay here. Therefore, there’s an issue and it has to be resolved.
I think we’re going to lose a lot of the things we love as we struggle to create a truly sustainable culture. It’s going to be heartbreaking in some ways, but it’s also going to be exciting because our coalitions are just going to get bigger and stronger. We’re going to sit down with folks who seem different from ourselves and go, “I can’t believe I’m working with you, but I’m going to set aside all the things we disagree on and we’re gonna win this one together. And then after we win it, we can go back to arguing about the other stuff.”