Cascadian Drone Ballads - An Introduction

written in September, 2012

Cascadian Drone Ballads are a style of folk music originating in the disputed territory known as Cascadia. They represent a cultural internalization of the impact of the American and Canadian governments' violent, technological incursion into this undeveloped natural terrain on the northern Pacific coast of North America, a identifying narrative device for those who live an off-the-grid lifestyle, and serve as a rallying point for activists fighting for Cascadian sovereignty both in the rural, mountainous areas and in the cities. This article will briefly theorize the music lineage of Drone Ballads and their context in the political and technological situation in Cascadia, and then illustrate this relationship as found in the lyrics of several songs in the Cascadian Drone Ballad style.

Cascadia

Cascadia currently has no sovereign rights as a state or territory, but its borders are generally viewed as encompassing the American states of Washington, Oregon, and northern areas of California, as well as the Canadian province of British Columbia. Different groups identify the borders according to their own primary locations and interests, but Cascadia is more a self-identification of independence and regional autonomy, than it is a desire for any particular historic regime, nation, or map. Originally known as an "bioregion", for its mostly unified terrain and environmental concerns among the eco-activists who popularized the term, "Cascadian Pride" has also been utilized in the past by area sports teams, micro-breweries, and other businesses in order to promote themselves with a certain regional consciousness, and utilize images of volcanoes, snow-capped peaks, salmon, and tall evergreen trees in their marketing.

But when marijuana cultivation was legalized across these three states and the one province, and the joint interdiction/enforcement operation known as Operation Green Perimeter was launched by the American and Canadian governments, pro-Cascadian agitation grew exponentially more serious. The governments' ability to monitor and tax marijuana cultivation in the mountainous and more remote regions was slight. Farms could be profitable with small crop areas scattered across the hills and valleys, where there were few roads open year round. Permits were purchased per quarter-acre, so it was quite common for a farm to purchase a minimal permit, and then exceed their legal footprint by sometimes as much as 50 times. Government estimates found that as much as one billion USD in licensing revenue might have been lost as grow operations exceeded their permits in those first years of legalization. To recoup this revenue, the Revenue Services of the US and Canada implemented the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Monitoring Network that formed the core of Operation Green Perimeter. Over one hundred war-class drones were sent to Cascadia for the task of monitoring marijuana farms throughout the region, to ensure their acreage remained with the license they had purchased.

This sort of federal government surveillance was not taken lightly in a region with already h3 autonomous leanings. The notion of a separate Cascadian state quickly became popular in rural areas, as an antithesis to the federal government and the state governments that could not and would not stand up to the authority of the Revenue Services. The heavy tax imposed on cultivation operations was interpreted as unfairly targeting the rural farmers' trade, while pharmaceutical corporations in cities paid a much lower tax rate. What began as autonomous hostility to the federal government eventually matured into open rebellion, with the amount of money at stake fueling armed insurgent groups that would attack ground patrols for the Revenue Services on back-country roads, building up weapons reserves, experience, and aggression in a very brief period of time.

After a brief period of open fighting with insurgents, the governments quickly won the upper-hand, and fighting subsided. The presence of drones in the air at all times made wide coordination between Cascadian-insurgent forces nearly impossible. The attacks on government resources continued, but were limited to sabotage, the occasional improvised explosive device, or ambush. The government eventually pulled out of the rural areas almost completely to limit their casualties in the publicly unpopular operation, instead limiting their policing to the shipments entering the cities, and to the UAV network overhead.

Drones

The actual number of drones on active-duty in the Cascadia region today are unknown, but analysts guess that the numbers are somewhere between seven hundred and one thousand, with nearly four hundred in the air at any given time. The drones fly at altitudes around 10,000 feet, and, according to the Revenue Services, their primary mission focus is mapping marijuana crops using a combination of visible-light spectrum and thermal imagery. Since the introduction of the geotag stamp system, which uses a combination of GPS tracking and RFID to track licensed shipments of marijuana from the registered production location to the processing facilities, the drones track the legal shipments, identify and backtrace any shipments that do not have paid and licensed geotag stamps, and then seize and fine the latter when they attempt to leave the rural areas. This minimizes the vulnerability of ground forces, as they don't have to make incursions into areas where insurgents could strike.

The drones' technological incursion is everpresent, as is their main striking armament: air-to-surface Hellfire missiles. Since the end of the major ground operations against insurgents, the official rules of engagement stipulate that drones may only strike targets that can be verified to be involved in violent, anti-government activities. Critics of Operation Green Perimeter and the domestic use of military drones say that this is a very loose definition, and that anything from mixing a large batch of concrete to fueling too many vehicles at once have been used as cause to fire at ground targets. According to standard procedure, ground forces are supposed to go and investigate any drone strike location, to clear up the wreckage and make post-mortem criminal charges. However, in practice this procedure can be delayed indefinitely by the ground forces, whether on account of perceived threats, weather, or simple bureaucratic delay. In reality, as long as the drones destroy their target, the mountain valleys often immediately return to stillness after a single missile has plummeted from the sky.

The Ballads

Cascadia has long had a history of musicians in the folk music style, perhaps symbolized best by Woodie Guthrie's Columbia River Songs, written in 1941. Guthrie was commissioned by the US government to write a few songs about the Department of the Interior's hydroelectric projects on the Columbia River, running through the heart of Cascadia. Upon visiting, he called the region "a paradise", and inspired, wrote 26 songs. Other artists have been similarly drawn to the beauty of the region, and stayed when their counter-cultural, pro-environmental, and anti-government sentiments found a home.

Norteño music from Mexico arrived with the influx of immigrants at the end of the 20th Century and beginning of the 21st, and with it, the sub-genre of narcocorrido or "narco-ballads". These songs tell historical tales of drug violence and anti-heroism from the drug smuggling cartels. While few singers of Drone Ballads trace their musical lineage to narcocorrido specifically, the influence of the guitar-led, fast-paced, danceable sounds of Norteño is discernible among Drone Ballad musicians. As well, Drone Ballads have in common with narcocorrido the shared tradition of folk music acting as a vehicle for a culture's coping with everpresent violence. Another point of comparison is the car-crash ballad of the 1950s and 60s in the United States. Again, it is not a direct lineage, but the emphasis on the violent nature, and at the same time almost unpreventable and fated event of drone strikes, finds comparisons to those traditions of singing songs about violent episodes in wistful, almost romantic style.

Another subtle point of influence comes from anarcho-folk music, or folk-punk. Drone Ballads are popularly thought to come directly from this style of music, which carries the fast, aggressive versus-chorus motif of punk to acoustic instruments, along with political rage. However, this lineage is false. Folk-punk groups in the cities of Cascadia were some of the first popular artists to introduce rurally popular Drone Ballads to a wider audience, transferring elements of their own style to the recordings of Drone Ballads in the process. However, folk-punk is first and foremost popular with the politicized youth of the urban areas, whereas Drone Ballads originated in the rural areas, where drones strikes still occur, sometimes on a daily basis. This is the home of the style, and the lifestyle that is its inspiration.

Drone Ballads are certainly pivotal to the urban-based activists who organize against the governments' use of drones to police the Cascadia region. Certain tunes, like "The Great Swarm on the Fourteenth" (see below), have become anthems for the Cascadian liberation movement that is gaining popularity in the cities. But this political popularity should be held in context with the original writing and performance of these songs. The songs were written by musicians who live in the strike areas of Cascadia. Despite the constant threat from the sky, they have chosen to stay where they are. Certainly, profits from cultivation are enough to draw many to take the risk. But the lyrics of these songs express more than simply dedication to a lucrative task. The violence, internalized, becomes a dedication to the land, and to the lifestyle of being a Cascadian. The lives of Cascadians, told through Drone Ballads, are the lives of h3, stubborn individuals who look at living off-the-grid the way most view taking an umbrella when one leaves the house. These are the stories that the songwriters wished to tell, and the fact that these songs have proved popular with a wider audience simply shows that these stories find resonance and appreciation throughout Cascadia, and indeed, the rest of the world.

The Lyrics

One of the best known Drone Ballads is perhaps "Blue, White, Green", which takes its name from the colors of the Cascadian flag. This song has been adopted by several Cascadian Secession groups as their unofficial anthem. The verses differ depending on the recorded version, covering various significant events of recent Cascadian history. But the chorus is the part that most Cascadians know by heart, and audiences always sing along when the song is performed.

Coast as wide, peaks as high, as
Prying eyes in the deep blue sky
Snows shine white, below thermal sights
We sleep as flames burn through the night
We will dream, of a Cascadia free
Without grey drones in the blue, white and green.

The words reference the colors of the Cascadian flag, along with their various inspirations in nature: the blue sky, the white snow on the peaks of the mountains, and the green of the forests. But the many references to drones, in and amongst the nature imagery shows the extent to which the current state of militarized surveillance has been internalized. There is a certain pathos in this acceptance, but additionally, a willingness to continue fighting.

Another song, "The Great Swarm on the Fourteenth" is a narrative account of the infamous June 14th drone strikes in North Central Washington. On that day, twenty total strikes were made in one valley, resulting in 273 deaths, and an iconic photo taken by a New York Times photographer of eight separate tendrils of smoke twisting up from the green forest, into the sky. This day of carnage directly resulted in the Bellingham Insurrection, later that summer.

Though the Insurrection was unsuccessful, this particular song chooses to memorialize the event that inspired that Insurrection, rather than the uprising itself. Ignoring the tactical and strategic mistakes of the response, the lyrics remember the pain and tragedy of the impetus, as a way of galvanizing resolve to keep going. Phrases such as "The day they turned our skies against us", and "we rise in smoke/the woods grow dark" typify the undercurrent of rebellion in Cascadian consciousness.

But not all Drone Ballads are entirely tragic. There is a good humor throughout many of these tunes, that are honest about the futility of the situation when the drone network above is so thick and unmerciless. They deal with the state of affairs with irony, and with tongue-in-cheek criticism. While not as popular as political anthems, they form a substantial sub-section of the Drone Ballad style, and a healthy component of the Cascadian narrative.

For example, the song "Don't Do Nothing" is told from the perspective of an overworked (in his perspective) marijuana cultivator, who sits on a hillside over a river, and enjoys a bit of his crop while watching a drone circulate above. He remarks upon the fact that he works so hard, while up in the sky the drones "don't do nothing". From the refrain:

Dams power irrigation pumps
pumps bring water up the hill
Water feeds the thirsty crops
And crops sometimes pay the bills
The drones don't do nothing
But sit in the clouds and watch

Another amusing story with a darker side is the tale recounted in "The Mountain Swimmer's Blues". The song tells of a man who wanted nothing more than to build a swimming pool on his property for his lover, viewing it as the height of commitment. He went ahead with these plans, despite the fact that concrete was hard to come by, and he lived on a mountain side where the swimming season was short. He dug the hole by hand, carrying heavy rocks, while his neighbors looked on and laughed. And then he started laying the foundation, bending rebar, and tying it together in the evenings. People started to think that he'd actually finish when he began to mix the concrete. But then a drone saw his work, and figuring that what could obviously not be a swimming pool on a mountain side was the site of a bunker, it struck with a missile, blowing up him and his pool. The song ends with his lover recognizing that the futility of his effort and his death by it, was indeed the commitment the pool-maker wanted to intend. It is not believed that this song was inspired by real events, though there are certainly no shortage of stories of drones strikes precipitated by only marginally suspicion actions, such as home brick-making, and road repair.

The previously mentioned song included particular geographic elements that are unique to Cascadia, such as the obvious instance of the mountain, but also tidbits about "working in the morning mist", and "cedar-bark loam". One standout example of another Drone Ballad that specifically takes pride in Cascadian geography is "Modoc Forest Service Road". The lyrics' narrative are about a woman who knew the fastest route from Clear Lake in the Modocs, all the way through the Siskayous to the Pacific coast. She would fly back and forth in her trusty red jeep, delivering news and supplies, traveling by her secret knowledge of the old, poorly maintained Forest Service roads. The story intimated that perhaps she's done some secessionary work, or at least the Revenue Services had suspected. One day, as she was clearing a ridge and entering the open area of a lava field, a missile from a drone found her jeep. This song does have some relation to a true story--Monica Jauntai was a reporter covering the insurgent conflict in Cascadia, who was known for driving a red jeep. There is controversy as to whether she was killed by a drone strike or an IED, but the story of her death was widely told in the mainstream as well as Cascadian media. However, she was killed outside of Detroit Lake in Oregon, not near Clear Lake in California, so the relationship would seem to be only inspirational.

Drone Ballads tell of heroes, of famous events, and of beautiful, evocative places--but a thread of sadness runs through them all. Even those songs that are inspirational find their power in the drive to face the futility of the political situation in Cascadia, and the drone network overhead that shows little sign of ever going away. This is an important sentiment to vocalize through culture, and it is the reason that Drone Ballads have grown so popular, as this conflict lingers on. There is little in the way of other expressive culture in the hills of Cascadia, as the drones make public gathering difficult. But music can be recorded, broadcast, or played for a small gathering, our of view of the unblinking eyes above. And the power of song is timeless, in this way. As the narrator says in "Victoria Island Song", as he or she waits in vain for the return of a friend and lover from Victoria Island who will never arrive, because of the drones patrolling the open water:

Our islands cannot travel
over the sea
But songs are invisible to drones above
And can travel from you to me

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