A Song to Save the Salish Sea: Musical Performance as Environmental Activism

A Song to Save the Salish Sea: Musical Performance as Environmental Activism

by Mark Pedelty


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253023001
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 10/10/2016
Series: Music, Nature, Place Series
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Mark Pedelty is Professor of Communication Studies and Anthropology and Resident Fellow in the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. His books include Ecomusicology: Rock, Folk and the Environment and Musical Ritual in Mexico City: From the Aztec to NAFTA.

Read an Excerpt

A Song to Save the Salish Sea

Musical Performance as Environmental Activism

By Mark Pedelty

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2016 Mark Pedelty
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02316-2


Bellingham's Dana Lyons

The Artful Activist

Every movement has its minstrel. The unions had Woody Guthrie. The peace movement had Phil Ochs. The environmental movement has Dana Lyons.

— Captain Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

For more than thirty years, Dana Lyons has combined a successful professional music career with environmental activism. Thanks to tireless touring and a Top 40 hit, Dana's music has reached well beyond activist audiences. The fifty-five-year-old singer-songwriter remains a popular draw as well as a movement musician.

Each of Dana's tours is designed to bring awareness to a timely environmental issue. He routes his tours through communities affected by a shared policy issue, linking those communities through music. For example, his first tour ran the entire length of Interstate 90, the path proposed for nuclear waste routed to Hanford, Washington. One of his most recent concert series, the Great Coal Train Tour of 2012, followed a route proposed for moving massive amounts of coal from eastern Montana to Bellingham, Washington, and onward to China and other nations. Dana takes advantage of the traditional musical tour structure to increase awareness of pressing environmental issues and to mobilize audiences to do something about them.

Dana's hit song "Cows with Guns" provided much of the notoriety and financing the singer needed to mount subsequent tours. It hit the Top 40 in several parts of the United States and Ireland, reaching number 2 on Australia's national country charts. "Cows with Guns" was number 1 in the Seattle-area radio market and became the top hit on radio's highly rated Dr. Demento Show for the year 1997. Proceeds and, more importantly, the notoriety earned from "Cows with Guns" helped Dana maintain an active touring schedule and audience. He has entertained audiences in forty-six American states, throughout Australia and Ireland, and in various parts of England, New Zealand, Mexico, China, Kazakhstan, and Siberia, among other nations. He has shared the stage with Willie Nelson, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Steppenwolf, Nazareth, Blue Oyster Cult, Neil Young, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Lucinda Williams, Stephen Stills, Nickel Creek, Country Joe McDonald, Utah Phillips, Steve Earle, and John Trudell and many other well-known acts.

From Farm Aid concerts to toxic waste dumps, Dana has performed in a variety of locales, including environmentally threatened and marginal sites many other artists avoid. Meanwhile, his sustained local commitments make him an ideal model of environmentalist musicianship and the natural place to start this story about environmentalist musicians in the Salish Sea region. Per the title of his latest album and tour, The Great Salish Sea, many of Dana's songs evoke place-related themes, and his tours creatively connect communities to one another and to their local environments. The Bellingham-based performer taps into what Ray Pratt calls "surplus repression," including audiences' pent-up desires for healthier communities and connection to place.

Occasionally, popular musicians ask for more than applause and money from their audiences, as if that was not demanding enough. Dana asks for action. His music has helped fuel successful campaigns to preserve natural areas and defend communities against potentially toxic development schemes. Conversely, much of popular music encourages us to forget about serious social problems. Music often becomes what anthropologist Jules Henry calls an "anodyne." Our steady diet of pop songs about sex, love, and romance is pleasurable, for certain. However, musicians like Dana demonstrate that music and musicians can entertain us and make us think at the same time.

In a world where much of popular music seeks solely to entertain, Dana's storied career provides clues as to how environmentalist musicians might also inform, inspire, and even mobilize audiences. First and foremost, Dana provides a model method for artistic collaboration with environmental movements. William Roy refers to movements as "collective agents of expression" in his insightful study of how movements "do culture." Roy notes that artists are essential to movements as cultural interlocutors, and here I offer Dana as a prime example and useful model. Dana's methodology of converting musical tours into environmental campaigns is unique and exceedingly effective, as is his comedic songwriting and storytelling. Before delving into Dana's backstory, it is a good time to remind the reader that his music videos, including "Cows with Guns," can be experienced at Ecosong.net.


Dana was surrounded by music from an early age. As a young man, his father was a big band crooner. His mother was musical as well, leading songs at summer camp, and "to this day," he said, she "wanders around making up goofy little songs." Born into a musical family, Dana started piano lessons at age seven and then began playing guitar at twelve. He formed his own rock band the following year. By age fourteen, he was writing his own music.

Dana took an early interest in the environment as well and began combining both passions in high school. After writing a few romantic tunes, he penned his "first environmentally oriented song." I asked Dana if there was anything about growing up in Kingston, New York, that inspired his love for nature. I assumed that he would immediately answer "yes" given Kingston's location in the middle of the Hudson River Valley. After all, that watershed was made famous by the Hudson River School, Woodstock, and Robert Starer's Hudson Valley Suite. Until 2009, Pete Seeger's Clearwater project was headquartered in Poughkeepsie, just nineteen miles from Dana's hometown of Kingston. The Hudson River Valley has played a central role in the imagination of American environmentalists, artists, and musicians throughout the nation's history.

Yet, when asked how the Hudson River Valley might have played a role in forming his environmentalist outlook, Dana replied that he had "never thought about that." Once he did think about it, however, he noted a number of ways in which his childhood along the Hudson River afforded special access to environmentalist traditions and values. "Certainly I was influenced at a very young age by Pete Seeger's work on the Hudson River with the Clearwater," he noted rather matter-of-factly, as if such experiences were common for middle-class kids. His parents "talked a lot about the Clearwater and Pete Seeger and the Hudson."

"I got to sail on the Clearwater when I was in my twenties," he added, remembering the moment fondly. Thinking back, Dana noted how the region was tuned to environmental matters: "That's an interesting question because certainly my family influenced it, but now that you mention, I think growing up in that region did influence it. My teachers were way into Earth Day. I had no perspective. I wasn't raised anywhere else, but there was a lot of interest in it there."

A few months later, in an interview with Richard Jenn of the Whatcom Watch, Dana reflected on how his childhood experiences might have led him to become to an environmental activist: "We used to play in the apple orchard behind our house. And then when developers bulldozed that apple field when I was ten 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." Early on, Dana recognized the importance of connecting to community, place, and nature. The Hudson River Valley was in the process of rediscovering its natural heritage throughout his childhood. Preservationist values surrounded Dana at home, in school, and even at play.

However, as a child, Dana never dreamed of recording a Top 40 hit or touring. Even as an undergraduate at Swarthmore, he was hedging his bets, preparing for a life of professional musicianship or, if that did not work out, law. He tried "the tougher route first," making music.

In combining music and environmental activism, Dana was by no means riding a popular trend. Activism had ceased to be cool by 1982, when the young political science major graduated from Swarthmore. American youth no longer fetishized the ideals made popular in the late 1960s and 1970s by hippies, the folk revival, and back-to-the-land environmentalists. The Reagan Revolution was in full swing, creating a far different context for young activists. Yuppies were in, and environmentalists were out.

Dana knew from the start that he was bucking a trend. Perhaps that is why he makes music somewhat differently compared to previous generations of folk artists. His parodic parables feature lawn-riding cowboys, militant livestock, and RV-driving dads rather than the more clearly delineated forces of repression and resistance in the music of folk icons like Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. Although his music runs the emotional gamut, Dana uses humor to scaffold his concert performances, strategically moving back to comedy whenever a rousing anthem or deeply personal ode to trees, whales, or forests threatens to bring down the celebratory mood and turn off the audience. Like all successful musicians, Dana is an expert at reading the room. His protagonists are less polarizing and his tone less accusatory than was typical for folk artists in the 1960s and 1970s.

By the 1980s, the environmentalist music movement pioneered by Pete Seeger and Malvina Reynolds in the 1960s had become a recognizable subgenre of folk. Rock musicians took on environmental matters in the early 1970s, although tending toward slower and simpler rhythms, acoustic instrumentation, and folk-tinged tonalities when dealing with ecological themes. By the time Dana came of age, however, it was no longer hip to write songs with environmental messages. It was viewed, perhaps even lampooned, as a clichéd musical niche for overly earnest folk artists. The same could be said of political participation in general. By the mid-1980s, participatory democracy was no longer cool, even on college campuses. Although almost every university had a group or two participating in the antiapartheid divestment movement in the 1980s, that movement was small in comparison to the collegiate peace, civil rights, and free speech movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

Like Ani DiFranco's disillusioned leftist in "Your Next Bold Move," Dana also came of age "during the plague of Reagan and Bush." However, unlike the politically paralyzed activist at the center of DiFranco's song, he did not simply watch "capitalism gun down democracy." He became even more involved as neoconservative interests, neoliberal philosophies, and corporate governance grew in social influence. Dana feels fortunate to have been "surrounded by people" at Swarthmore who "were concerned about the US wars in El Salvador and Guatemala." He "started learning to question the government's version of things" even more than he had as a kid while defending apple orchards along the Hudson.

After graduating, Dana decided to hit the road. That road, and a geographic compromise with his girlfriend, brought him to the Pacific Northwest. Dana's girlfriend wanted to move to California, whereas he would have preferred Alaska. So the young couple settled on Washington, which is "in between." It is surprising that such a long-term commitment to Cascadia could have resulted from a compromise. However, more than three decades later, Dana is still living and working in Bellingham, Washington, having become a model steward in the Salish Sea community.


Once situated in Washington, Dana decided against performing heavily traveled tour circuits. Instead, the young musician would trace paths through communities and regions facing imminent environmental threats. The first such tour took place in 1986. Dana toured along I-90 to protest a Department of Energy (DOE) proposal to dump commercial nuclear waste at the Hanford Site. Bordered by the Hanford Reach on the Columbia River, that facility was a dump site for military nuclear waste. US taxpayers have doled out billions of dollars to clean up Hanford thus far, and it will require billions more to complete the job. It is the largest Superfund site in the country.

As if that were not bad enough, in the 1980s the Reagan Administration proposed using Hanford as a dump site for commercial nuclear waste as well. The commercial nuclear materials were to be transported via truck across I-90 in order to join the massive military waste already packed into Hanford. Fittingly, Dana chose to tour along I-90 in order to entertain, educate, and agitate on behalf of a coalition formed to defeat the DOE proposal.

Dana composed "Our State Is a Dumpsite," a "goofy song" recorded as a vinyl record. The songwriter's comedic storytelling strategies are clearly already well developed in the song. A proud protagonist declares the glories of his "ever-glowing state." The song is deadly serious fun. Like Woody Guthrie's word craft (including his unpublished nuclear songs), Dana's lyrical poetry is deceptively deft. He stretches and twists the vernacular to form a surprisingly insightful social analysis. The resulting song is not a simple us-versus-them anthem or cornpone poetry but is instead a fairly complex vision of what might happen should DOE dumping be allowed. In the future outlined by Dana in "Our State Is a Dumpsite," dumping would benefit some Washingtonians, including the protagonist of the song, who loses a "job here fishing" when the nuclear waste does in the salmon runs yet comes out ahead after opening his new nuclear supply store.

Our State Is a Dumpsite

Well I lost my job here fishing and opened up a store
I buy and sell reactors, cooling towers and lead doors
We've got a brand new industry bearing fruit of finer taste
We sell juice to California and get paid to keep the waste

Chorus: Our State is a Dumpsite, Plutonium 239
Our State is a Dumpsite, just set it over there, that's fine
Our State is a Dumpsite, we'll take whatever you send.
Our State is a Dumpsite, where the hot times never end

We don't just make the power, we also build the bombs
The dollars never stop from Washington to Washington
The other states all love us cause we rarely take a stand
They send us little presents and put money in our hands


So now I'm fat and wealthy cause my business here has grown
I sell lamps that don't plug in and heaters for your home
Progress and technology, for us they've sure been great
We're singing here in Washington, the ever-glowing state.

Chorus (2x)

The song begins with Dana's matter-of-fact delivery, accompanied by alternating arpeggiated bass lines and strummed chords on acoustic guitar. Dana's voice is more melodic than those of labor musicians like Utah Phillips. Traditionally, labor singers tended to project gruffer voices, shouting as much as singing, performances befitting a loud labor camp. As described in chapter 2, the Raging Grannies have adopted a similar style with great vigor, also performing outdoors and competing with loud soundscapes. Dana, however, is a trained and talented singer whose baritone nicely complements spare guitar accompaniments in stage-based musical performances. In fact, acoustic accompaniment, amplification, and a good mix are needed to fully appreciate Dana's voice in the typical performance context, whereas Utah Phillips's singing-shouting style allows him to belt out the lyrics in practically any performance site, regardless of amplification.

After a relatively subdued introduction and verse, a full band kicks in at the first chorus of "Our State Is a Dumpsite," which reveals itself as a "goofy song." There is a formulaic quality to Dana's first recording, a song that was rushed from composition to distribution as time-dated material. The song's country-blues sound is already clichéd when a tinny honky-tonk piano enters on the second chorus, a track that could have been borrowed from the saloon scene of a Western comedy film. Throughout the song, however, Dana's voice is front and center. In this and in all his songs, words and voice are emphasized over instrumental mix, with acoustic guitar lending harmonic support.


Excerpted from A Song to Save the Salish Sea by Mark Pedelty. Copyright © 2016 Mark Pedelty. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Bellingham’s Dana Lyons: The Artful Activist
2. Victoria’s Raging Grannies: An Unstoppable Force
3. North America’s Idle No More: The Aural Art of Protest
4. Vancouver’s Bobs & Lolo: Raindrop Pop
5. Surrey’s Artist Response Team: ART for Ecology
6. Orcas Island’s Irthlingz: Community Art as Activism
7. Victoria’s Towers and Trees: Together Alone Online
Conclusion: Common Themes and Connections

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