Music that connects people to the land and sea has been with us for centuries. Recent singer-songwriters such as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell have built on that tradition.
Here in the Puget Sound region, you can add another name to that list: Dana Lyons. He's known for his songs about social issues, especially the environment.
The title track of his latest album is called “The Great Salish Sea.” It’s about the interplay of nature and commerce.
The song is told from the perspective of Granny, a local resident orca whale who lived to be over 100 years old. She was the world’s oldest known killer whale until her death in late 2016.
“The idea was to write about the changing sound of boats over the course of Granny’s lifetime - from the Native American dug-out canoes made out of cedar, to the great sailing ships, to the giant ships of today – the freighters, the oil tankers, the coal ships,” Lyons said.
He said he’s concerned about the effects of modern ship traffic on orcas’ ability to communicate, especially if tanker traffic increases to ship more oil and coal to Asian markets overseas.
“It’s about the Orcas, but really it’s about the whole Salish Sea and all of us who live here, and how our beautiful home is threatened,” Lyons said.
Another song about the health of our waterways is “The Salmon Come Home,” which he says was written for an Athabascan village in Alaska that was threatened with a giant coal mine.
“They wanted to dig up thirteen miles of the beautiful Chuitna River, thirteen miles of salmon-spawning habitat,” Lyons said.
He says the song speaks to people all over the world with similar concerns.
“That’s the beauty of this song. It’s really about Salmon Country. You know, it could be a song about any place from northern California – the southern reaches of the temperate rainforest, the Redwoods— all the way up into Alaska.”
“And we’re part of this amazing pacific salmon region and for human beings it’s the staple protein food for millennia,” he said. “And so salmon really are the defining animal of our culture.”
Lyons worries about the proposed expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline, which has its terminus in Vancouver, British Columbia.
If that project goes ahead as planned, the number of tankers carrying crude oil from Canada’s tar sands through the Salish Sea could increase sevenfold.
Lyons uses his music as a protest tool and a rallying cry, frequently performing to express opposition. He says now is the time to take aim at that pipeline.
“We in Washington and Oregon have been very successful at stopping six proposed coal ports that also were a big threat to the Salish Sea,” Lyons said. “And the Canadians helped us to stop those coal ports, and we can help the Canadians to stop that pipeline.”
He says the way to accomplish that is by focusing on the incredible richness of the place where we live.
“I believe in people power. Even in our challenged democracy, we can make a difference if we get organized, if we work for what we love,” he said.
With the natural beauty and wonder of the Salish Sea under threat, Lyons says it shouldn’t be that hard to mobilize the opposition.