Interview with activist/singer/songwriter Darryl Cherney, originally published by Canadian Dimension magazine in 1994.
Free the dead! (chorus: Free the dead!)
Free the dead! (Free the dead!)
Feed them to the maggots, bears and worms.
Free the dead! (Free the dead!)
Free the dead! (Free the dead!)
Let them decompose on their own terms.
— from Cherney’s song “Free the Dead”
Darryl Cherney is a political and environmental activist: an Earth First!er, Wobbly, and singer-songwriter-troubadour who was injured along with Judi Bari in a car bomb explosion in 1990. In 1992, at the time of this interview, he was suing the FBI and Oakland Police for their roles in the bombing and investigation. (Ten years later, I would be on the media team for this historic trial.) Cherney is unique among activist singers in having inspired both environmentalists and workers with his music. During a mill closing in Mendocino County, his song “Potter Valley Mill” was the number one requested song on the local radio station.
What moved you to write the song “Free the Dead”?
Cherney: Not only do we take, take, take through all our lives, buying TVs, cars and paper cups and all kinds of doo-dads to set on the shelf, but when we finally die, do we make that final gesture of’ giving our bodies back to the planet, saying, “Mother Earth, I’ve taken from you all my life, but now I’m going to give my body back to make new soil and push up some beautiful daisies?” No-o-o-o! We fill our bodies up with poisons so we can be preserved for just a little bit longer! Just hanging onto “life,” eeking out a few more days, after we’re dead!
My friend, Johnny, he was dead,
from his toes up to his head.
Started rotting when he died,
so they filled him with formaldehyde,
put him in a basement crypt,
just like back in old Egypt.
Maggots trying to get in —
Boy, it sure was frustratin.’
— from Cherney’s song “Free the Dead”
So the song “Free the Dead” addresses this issue. To hell with formaldehyde. Just like Ed Abbey, you know: “Take my body out to the wilderness and let the animals have it.” Because, really, they deserve it! We’ve been taking from these critters for so long. After you’re dead, what do you need your body for? Instead of giving my body to science, I’m giving mine to Mother Nature.
How long has music been used in politics in America?
Music has been used in politics, not just in America, but throughout history, as long as there’s been music. Originally, and still today, music is a reflection of who we are, and a good revolutionary movement always inspires musicians.
In the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King and all the other people sang these incredible spiritual songs with new civil rights lyrics attached to them. And the Wobblies, back at the turn and early part of the century, had Joe Hill as their primary songwriter. They were known as “the singing union.” You could go back to the civil war. I have a whole album of civil war songs. Beautiful lyrics came out of both sides of the fight.
You know there’s an old Aesop’s fable – I probably shouldn’t tell this – it doesn’t do me any good – in which a drummer is captured by enemy troops who are going to execute him, and he says, “Hey, don’t kill me! I’m just a drummer. I don’t go out and shoot anybody.” And they say, “Are you kidding? We’re going to kill you first, because you’re the person who gives inspiration to the soldiers to go out and fight for the cause.” Musicians fill that role.
Strip-mining mountains by the ton, digging up the uranium.
Bald eagle looking for a place to land, but it’s all gone for a nuclear plan.
Must we poison the water, earth and air,
Just to cook a piece of toast or blow dry our hair?
No compromise! No compromise! No compromise! No Compromise!
No compromise in defense of Mother Earth – Earth First!
— from Cherney’s song “Earth First!”
Victor Jara, in Chile, was tortured, had his hands cut off and was executed by Pinochet. He was a songwriter. Joe Hill, in our country, was executed by the state of Utah in 1916 or 17. If you go to Eastern Europe, you can follow many artists like Solzhenitsyn in Russia who are oppressed by the government. Artists are often at the top of the list, because they know that people are attracted to the arts and the arts convey political ideologies in a way that people can accept and that integrates into their actions and their own politics.
Are you afraid?
Well, I’d be stupid if I wasn’t afraid. But fear is a good thing. It’s part of the survival instinct. You know, I was in – not one – but two cars that were completely trashed. One, in which Judi Bari and I were bombed back May 24, 1990. That was an incredibly traumatic experience. Judi was maimed for life. I’m still very skittish about that. [Judi died seven years later of breast cancer.]
A lesser known incident took place in August, 1989, in which Judi and I and another activist and four children were riding in a station wagon which was rear-ended by a logging truck and sent flying into the air to land on a parked pick-up truck knocking it up a flight of stairs, we hit it so hard. By some miracle, we all came out of that in one piece. It was a miracle. So, I was already skittish about getting into cars at the time the bomb went off almost killing Judi.
Now, Judi Bari is a Wobblie organizer,
a “Mother Jones” of the Georgia Pacific mill.
She fought for the sawmill workers
hit by that PCB spill.
Who bombed Judi Bari?
We know you’re out there still.
Have you seen her broken body,
and the spirit they can’t kill?
— from Cherney’s song “Who Bombed Judi Bari?”
These are not isolated cases. Everybody from the American Indian Movement to Black Panthers to even Jim Garrison who prosecuted the Kennedy Assassination down in New Orleans against Clay Shaw – all these people along with many others – have been victims of brutal government harassment. I travel with the “Death Threat Museum,” which shows people documents, photographs and other things people can put their hands on to demonstrate how a disinformation campaign, a hate campaign, an assassination attempt and cover-up took place, as well as ways to keep this type thing from happening in the future and the ways we’re dealing with it right now.
Why was Judi a target?
We don’t know yet who the attempted assassin was, and so we can’t say for certain what was the person’s motivation. But we have a really good idea about what Judi was doing that would stir up the fears and the hatred of the FBI and the timber industry. Judi was doing something that very, very few people in this world can do: she was combining labor union organizing with environmental activism and she was doing both incredibly effectively and she was doing them in abundance. She was one of the founders and prime organizers of Redwood Summer for which, after the bombing, thousands of people came to California and shut down logging operations and walked through the streets. At the same time, she was organizing Georgia Pacific mill workers into an IWW labor union – the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World, the labor union of Joe Hill and Mother Jones and Eugene Debs and Lucy Parsons and Elizabeth Gurley Flinn and Big Bill Haywood – all the noted radicals of their day, back in the 20s, that the FBI was founded to wipe out! That’s right, the FBI was founded to take out the Wobblies and other radical labor organizers. And they did it. In 1920, they arrested 20,000 members of the IWW. They thought they killed it. Then here comes Judi Bari, doing effective Wobbly labor organizing in a real live Georgia Pacific saw mill at the same time she’s organizing protesters for Redwood Summer.
Now these Wall Street money men, they got me mad.
I got a family to feed, and fallin’ trees is the only job I ever had.
So, folks, we can’t just stand here while this boom-and-bust goes on.
We gotta stop this big old corporation before all the trees are gone.
Tell me: Where are we gonna work when the trees are gone?
Say, will the big boss have us wash his car or maybe mow his lawn?
I’m a man, I’m a man, I’m a lumberjack man, but I fear it ain’t for long.
Tell me: Where are we gonna work when the trees are gone?
— from Cherney’s song “Where Are We Gonna Work When the Trees Are Gone?”
She’s a real effective organizer and a real environmental activist. She had a union case, defending Georgia Pacific sawmill workers on a PCB spill case that went right up to Elizabeth Dole in the Department of Labor.
Take a look at other people who’ve done the same combination. Chico Mendez, rainforest activist and labor union organizer for the rubber tappers, who brought the working people and the environmentalists together – bammo – he’s off’d. Karen Silkwood, labor union activist at the nuclear power plant where she worked and also an environmental activist fighting nuclear power – blammo – she’s off’d, too. Then Judi Bari. Someone tried the same thing.
American corporations find this a tremendous threat, because they try to keep us fighting with each other. They tell the workers that environmentalists are your enemies because “we’re going to have to shut down the plant or move it to Mexico because we can’t afford to meet the environmental regulations,” and then the environmentalists are told “the workers are your enemy because they’re just mindless morons who don’t care for the earth, just want to make a sleazy buck,” and they create this dynamic of us fighting with each other. Judi stopped the fighting. She actually brought the two groups together. Judi scared the hell out of Georgia Pacific and Louisiana Pacific and other lumber companies up here. There’s just no question this combination was the reason she was targeted.
I definitely keep a careful eye on audiences when I sing. I’ve been harassed by loggers and people like that, but I’m much more afraid of what industrial civilization is doing to this planet, what multinationals have in store for us with the ozone layer, deforestation, the draining of our lakes and destruction of our rivers, the overgrazing of the prairies. These are the things that will ultimately murder us all.
How important is music in the political process?
Music is sugar-coating on a truth pill. A lot of people don’t want to hear certain information when it’s spoken to them or when they read it in a newspaper or a magazine. But everybody likes a song. The type of songs I write are a country western melody or something else that’s palatable to the ear, and I find very often I’ll sing for loggers or miners or mill workers, and a message that’s received with more difficulty when you try to preach at them is well received when you sing it to them. I’ve got lots of songs about mills closing down, moving the lumber processing plants to Mexico, and the loggers just love it. The people are real receptive to music.
To me, music is a manifestation of love. We engage in direct action, protest, confrontation, and we’re really angry. All those things are good, and not exclusive to being a loving activist. The bottom line is, what we’re going to have to use to heal this planet is love. And music is, in some ways, the ultimate manifestation of love.
They’re closing down the mill at Potter Valley,
leaving all those good folks in a bind.
They’re closing down the mill at Potter Valley,
and I can’t believe the mess they’ll leave behind.
— from Cherney’s song “Potter Valley Mill”
Does music also help activists to deal with what otherwise might be a state of despair or anger?
Sure, any revolutionary, or in our case evolutionary, group needs to have a few good songs in order to keep the faith and to keep a sense of humor about things. The songs I write are funny, and try to make light of what would otherwise be a somber, fighting situation. You get to write a song for a particular demonstration, and people really dig the fact you’ve taken the time to address that specific issue for that day.
A couple examples: When we were at the Pacific Lumber Company mill, I wrote “Where Are We Going to Work When the Trees Are Gone?” the day before we sang at the mill. For James Watt, who’s an avowed Christian who wants to pave the world for Christ, I wrote “You Can’t Clear-cut Your Way to Heaven.” When Louisiana Pacific announced they were shipping redwood logs to Mexico to be milled, I wrote “Swimming `Cross the Rio Grande,” a song about a Mexican mill worker who swims across to this country to find work and then finds out that all the work’s gone right back to Mexico and has to swim back.
What’s the story behind “Maxxam’s on the Horizon”?
Back in 1989, I came to Tucson to visit with Earth First! people and found out that Maxxam, which has been cutting down the redwoods in northern California to recoup losses from a corporate takeover and junk bond financing, was planning to develop near the Cienega Creek 20,000 condos and a golf course. In fact, that beautiful riparian zone in the middle of the desert is now owned by the Maxxam Corporation. They were holding hearings at the Pima County Planning and Zoning Commission that morning when I was visiting at the Earth First! Journal office, so I dashed out a song called “Maxxam’s on the Horizon” to explain to the people on the Commission that their consideration of Maxxam had to go beyond just whether they were going to drain the Cienega Creek and build condos and a golf course.
In the town of Kilgore, Texas, was born a tailor’s son.
From the killing of the Indians, he learned how the West was won.
His name was Charlie Hurwitz, and he terrorized the land.
His killing field was Wall Street, and his gang was called Maxxam.
Hurwitz stole Pacific Lumber, used junk bonds to get the cash.
Left the mighty Redwood Forests a pile of broken slash.
And then, folks, he made his millions, and when Maxxam’s deal was done,
A billion dollars paid with Redwood blood and the worker’s pension fund.
— from Cherney’s song “Maxxam’s on the Horizon”
They had to realize that this was the same company which was liquidating the redwoods, that has this nation’s fifth largest failed savings and loan under its belt, that’s destroying big horn sheep habitat in southern California in order to build a Ritz-Carlton Hotel and state housing, that sued an entire town for $240 million in order to overturn an election that prevented its developments from occurring. I wanted them to have a holistic picture of what Maxxam was before the committee took their vote, and they [the Pima County Planning and Zoning Commission] voted 8 to 1 against allowing Maxxam to do their dastardly deeds. Unfortunately, the Pima County supervisors voted to give Maxxam the rights to drain Cienega Creek and build their golf course and condos. Whether or not that’ll happen remains to be seen.
You wrote “He Looked a Whole Lot Like Jesus” after the FBI busts at the CAP power lines.
Yes, by now people know about the Arizona Five, where the FBI set up some activists, two of them Earth First!ers, Dave Foreman and Peg Millet, for a whole bogus scheme of sabotaging nuclear power plants which was, of course, false. For the record, those people were not convicted on those charges at all.
The FBI sent in an infiltrator who pretended to be a Viet Nam veteran, who had all the right bumper stickers on his truck. This song describes the “perfect Earth First!er” who did everything “right” and of course turns out to be a spy.
He looked a whole lot like Jesus, he looked just like the Lord,
Long hair on his head, his neck it was red, and he was driving an old beat-up Ford.
So now, I’m sitting in prison, a jump suit and flip-flops I wear.
I’ll be out with good time by 2009, hope there’ll still be some old growth out there.
But the man who looked just like Jesus, he sure ain’t sharing my cell.
`Cause he was a spy for the FB of I, and he busted Dave Foreman as well.
— from Cherney’s song “He Looked a Whole Lot Like Jesus”
It warns people against following those who look like their “dream activist.” Because the FBI has a little dossier on each of us that tells where our weaknesses are, who are the people we look up to, and then they’ll try to imitate that. Of course, Hayduke, from The Monkeywrench Gang, by Edward Abbey – in some ways the foundation for the Earth First! movement, was a Viet Nam veteran. So they came up with a Viet Nam veteran spy, just like that. So I wrote a funny song about him.
Your recent tour included songs and speeches for “500 Years of Resistance.”
Yes, Native American people are calling for a protest of Columbus Day. But this isn’t just to protest Columbus, but to protest imperialism, distorted history and the creation of false myths that allow us to believe that the massacre of Indians was the act of a series of heroes rather than a series of villains, and a protest of the fact that we’ve been celebrators of a wrong holiday. Columbus is the lead domino. Once you knock Columbus off his pedestal, there goes Magellan and Henry Hudson and Balboa and Father Junipero Serra and Kit Carson, and a whole series of mass murderers and land rapers who, by some distortion of history have been put up on pedestals.
I think it’s good to have heroes. I’m not against having heroes and respecting people for their fine work, but we shouldn’t be respecting people who are historical Ted Bundys or Charles Mansons, going around mass murdering people and taking credit for it. We should have a Chief Seattle Day if you want to have a positive role model for children and adults in this country. And there’s many other people, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull and lots of good white people, too – Joe Hill, Mother Jones, Elizabeth Gurley Flinn, Susan B. Anthony and many, many others we could hold days of respect for.
“You Can’t Clearcut Your Way to Heaven” has been a lasting favorite. What’s its story?
Yeah, let’s hit on the Christians a little bit. This song, in a jovial way, takes the Bible and gives an alternative musical interpretation to the way God might feel about things. In the story of Noah, for example, not a single species was left out when they went into the ark. This is the perfect argument against extinction. There it is, right in the Bible, God says, “Thou shalt not make any animal extinct. Don’t want to lose a single one to the flood.” You can interpret the Bible any way you want, which the fundamentalists do, of course, in order to destroy the planet. What this song does is give us an interpretation for saving the planet.
Now, the Lord made the world in just six days,
a wonder to behold when it was done,
deep oceans and blue skies, forests green and mountains high,
with animals that crawl and fly and run.
But one of God’s creatures wasn’t pleased.
It wanted to create with it’s own hand.
So it clear-cut all the trees, carved the mountains, spoiled the seas,
proclaiming it’s the way that God had planned.
But you can’t clear-cut your way to heaven.
No, strip mines don’t make it with the Lord.
Bulldozing the creation won’t win God’s admiration,
and the pearly gates may close forever more.
— from Cherney’s song “You Can’t Clearcut Your Way to Heaven”
There’s a lot of fundamental problems with the way our society works right now. And one of them is this whole Christian work ethic: the Earth is here for the explicit use of mankind and we have dominion over the Earth and it’s our duty to destroy the place. The Bible prophesies that we’re going to do all these horrible things to the planet. In a way, we set up our society to self-fulfill that prophesy of Armageddon. It’s outrageous how people like James Watt, Ronald Reagan and Dan Quayle actively promote consuming the planet in order to allow the “Rapture” to occur, allow the Second Coming, allow the prophecies to be fulfilled. I mean, what a bunch of trash! We shudder about the fundamental extremists taking over in Iran and in Algeria and other countries, but our country has been taken over by fundamental extremists.
Do you still sing “Spike a Tree for Jesus,” or are your tree-spiking songs not popular around northern California since spiking has been renounced?
Some Earth First!ers in northern California, including myself, have called for an end to the tactic of tree-spiking, because we believe the saw mill owners were sending spiked trees through the mills in hopes that somebody would get injured and then they could blame it on Earth First! We didn’t want to let the corporations set us up that way and have somebody injured. We’ve always had an ethic that spiked trees be made known publicly so no one would be hurt, but we couldn’t help it if the corporations weren’t telling the mill workers.
Before we called for an end to tree-spiking, I supported it and wrote a lot of songs about it, including “Spike a Tree for Jesus” and co-wrote along with Mike Roselle “The Ballad of the Lonesome Tree-Spiker” and a few others. I still sing them because they’re historical tunes. They may not be contemporary to northern California politics, but “Spike a Tree for Jesus” is not really about tree spiking and it’s not a song about Jesus, even though tree-spiking and Jesus come up in every single chorus. The song is about taking responsibility for the things that we make and the things that we do. You know, if you work, you’re not just doing your job, you’re creating a product or a service. What are the ramifications, the end result of the service or product you create? Take responsibility for that. That’s what “Spike a Tree for Jesus” does. It takes a look at who made the cross, where it all happened, where it all went down, who was ultimately responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus who, by the way, was the first hippie peace activist.
Some say the Romans killed Jesus,
and some say that it was the Jews,
and some say that it was King Herod,
and some say it was me and you.
When I think of the cross He was nailed to,
and the tree that was cut for the wood,
I realize `twas the loggers killed Jesus.
It’s time that we got them back good.
…The logger who cut that old tree down,
he was just going along with the mob.
When asked why he did it, he answered,
“I was only just doing my job.”
— from Cherney’s song “Spike a Tree for Jesus”
A number of people refer to you as the “Woody Guthrie of the environmental movement.” Do you like that?
Of course, Woody was a fantastic songwriter, and without comparing myself to Guthrie on a quality level, I’d like to say that Guthrie and I do have a lot in common. He traveled around the country a lot. He wrote songs for individual demonstrations and groups of people, so people would feel good about the places they were living and the issues they were working on. In that respect, I do draw from Woody Guthrie a tremendous amount. He also had a real steady rhythm guitar and I appreciate his guitar playing even though it was very simple. He had a good beat you could tap your foot to. He didn’t have the world’s greatest voice and, Hell knows, neither do I. Woody’s got some fine tunes out there.
Joe Hill is another hero of mine as far as song writing goes, because Hill also addressed the Christianity factor. Today, the Christian dominion ethic tells us to destroy the planet for Jesus and allow Armageddon to take place. Back then, in the labor union organizing days of the Wobblies, in the early 1900s, the Salvation Army was out and the fascist ministers were out there telling everybody they had to “work and pray and live on hay,” and it was God’s will that you should suffer and grovel on this earth because you would get pie in the sky when you died. Meanwhile, the Wobblies had a hard time getting permission to solicit and sing and speak on street corners. In fact, they engaged in “free speech fights” back at the turn of the century and were beaten up for reading the Declaration of Independence on street corners. Well, Joe Hill came up with an idea. The man was positively brilliant, a Swedish immigrant whose real name was Joseph Hillstrom. He heard the Salvation Army singing on the street corners, and the Wobblies were competing with them for the same street corners, because people were so poor, they
either needed some union organizing or they needed the Salvation Army to feed them. So Hill took their Christian hymnals and wrote new labor lyrics to their songs, so when the Salvation Army struck up the band, everybody could sing and be legally allowed to stand on the street corner, but they’d sing the new political labor union organizing lyrics. It completely confounded the Salvation Army and the law enforcement that was trying to get rid of them.
These are times that try our souls.
The masterminds have lost control.
Drunk with power and poisoned by their greed,
They don’t leave much of a choice,
Go to hell, or raise your voice.
There ain’t no middle ground for us to plead.
We’re on the edge of another time,
The cutting edge – our lives are on the line.
— from Cherney’s song, The Cutting Edge”
In this country, we don’t really have a democracy unless we participate in it. Democracy by definition means “rule by the people.” If people aren’t ruling, then, de facto, we do not have a democracy. So, in a sense, my tours are to help bring democracy to the United States, which has been sorely lacking for a very, very long time.