While on a California tour in mid-May, the Grand Rapids, Mich. singer began scribbling down the lyrics to “Eagle Rock (Song for the People)” as he and 6-year-old Danny played the board game about naval superiority.
“Some friends needed a babysitter for one of their kids and in between games of Battleship, I was writing down lyrics,” Nelson said.
The song is now being played by radio stations and is a free download on several Internet sites.
At every California concert, Nelson mentioned the effort to stop Kennecott Eagle Minerals from building its Eagle Project nickel and copper mine on the Yellow Dog Plains, located on state land – now leased to Kennecott – that’s included in an 1842 federal treaty giving Ojibwa rights to hunt, fish and gather. The mine portal is planned at or near Eagle Rock, the site of Ojibwa ceremonies for as long as elders can remember.
Among the numerous inspirations for the song, the April 20 trespassing arrest of environmental activist Cynthia Pryor by order of mine officials, the encampment started by three Native American women at Eagle Rock on April 23 in reaction to Pryor’s arrest, and by an Internet video from atop Eagle Rock featuring Ojibwa camper Levi Tadgerson that’s been viewed by thousands.
“The commitment and bravery of those at Eagle Rock really inspired me,” Nelson said. “It reminded me of Mother Jones standing up against [mine owners].”
Pryor’s arrest “really got us worked up,” Nelson said. “People are getting bullied.
“In California, I could not shake what was going on at Eagle Rock and I was checking the Stand for the Land Web site every day.
“I was telling everyone in California about what’s going on at Eagle Rock – even people I stopped on the street. It would come to a point in the show every night that I asked (the audience) to please look at info available and make up your own mind.”
The night before he babysat and wrote the lyrics, an audience member asked a pointed question.
“So when are you going to write a song,” the person asked at the end of a show in Chico, Calif.
“The next morning I started writing the lyrics,” Nelson said.
Since 2004, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and numerous environmental groups have been trying to stop the Eagle Project – through lawsuits, educating the public and other means.
To understand why Nelson wrote his song, you have to grasp his spiritual and family ties to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Nelson’s late grandfather was born in Marquette, Mich. along Lake Superior and his Detroit area father-in-law Bill Lucas regularly plants trees at a 250-acre camp he owns in tiny Trout Creek, Mich.
Nelson enjoys the finesse of fly-fishing for trout in the U.P. and even ties his own flies.
His favorite U.P streams are the Salmon Trout River near Eagle Rock and the Fox River in Seney – memorialized and renamed by Ernest Hemingway in “Big Two Hearted River” – a fictional trout fishing story of a shell-shocked World War I vet returning home.
Ironically, historians say Hemingway likely never saw the real Two Hearted River – a name he found more poetic – about 25 miles to the west.
“The Salmon Trout River is one of the greatest places on earth and is one of the last places that has a run of coaster brook trout,” said Nelson, who left for a five-day trout float on the 67-mile Pere Marquette River in the Lower Peninsula moments after being interviewed.
Nelson has been following the fight to stop the mine for years and – even before writing the song – was booked to perform a free benefit concert entitled “Sulfide Mining Kills” at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 28 at the Peter White Public Library in Marquette, Mich. to raise donations for the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.
Like many songs, “Eagle Rock (Song for the People)” underwent a “couple different revisions during the writing process,” Nelson said.
“I even changed a couple lines while we were recording.”
Unlike many songs, only a few days passed between writing and the song reverberating through the huge pines at Eagle Rock.
Nelson recorded the song May 18 and “it was played on Eagle Rock the next day” because he “e-mailed it directly to Wendy Johnson at the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.
“I recorded it in Grand Rapids at a friend of mine’s apartment in between a neighbor’s barking dog,” said Nelson, laughing as he recalled the quick recording session.
He described the song’s conception to birth as a “whirlwind” during which he wrote the lyrics and music, plays lead guitar and sang portions in two different pitches.
If you listen closely, you can hear Nelson singing both harmony tracks.
“We went back and edited the harmony part – there are two voices – both of them are me on the chorus.”
In retrospect, Nelson believes he got a sign to write the song after singing at a recent Michigan Sundance and subsequent talk with Ojibwa novelist and poet Gordon Henry Jr.
“He (Gordon Henry Jr.) explained what could we do and then this all happened” at Eagle Rock, Nelson said.
Nelson believes protecting the environment is one of the most important issues facing mankind.
“It’s hard to believe that any rational person could come to any other conclusion than what the mining company is proposing to do is completely wrong. I hope the mine company sees that it’s just too much trouble and they stop and go away.
“I hope our leaders will take a look at the effects of this mine and realize that our government was not set up to put Band-aids on a catastrophe. We need to think ahead about what is this mine going to do for our future and our children and their children – what’s going to happen after us?”
His song is already in the memory of at least one child, the boy Nelson babysat.
Returning to that friend’s home at the tour’s end, the boy’s father called him down from a nap to hear Nelson’s new song.
His dad said “do you want to hear Drew’s new song?”
Danny said “Yeah I already have – it’s the eagle one.”