An anniversary of local significance takes place this year; it was 75 years ago that the Columbia River’s Grand Coulee Dam began generating hydroelectric power. It was also 75 years ago that Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), tasked with providing cheap power to the rural Pacific Northwest, started planning an ambitious effort to promote this endeavor.
The idea was simple propaganda; create a canon of music, film, stage play and other fodder for the social media of the day. Seed the message in the grassroots and grow the support of the people. Wrest control of this resource away from the capitalists and place the power in the hands of the people.
But who could relay this message in a way that would resonate with the “common man” the way Will Rogers had managed to do in decades past? The BPA reached out to Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax for a reference he recommended but one person: Woodrow Wilson Guthrie.
Woody Guthrie, a darling of the “new folk” left, was a popular radio show host, writer and performer… for as long as he could stomach staying put in one place. During a stint in New York in 1940, Guthrie was recorded by Lomax for the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Song.
Woody’s recordings became the albums known as the Dust Bowl Ballads. Lomax saw the potential of translating Woody’s chronicling of the plight of his fellow Okie refugees to this BPA project in the Northwest. After all, one side benefit of the Grand Coulee Dam was to divert irrigation water to arid central Washington, transforming this desert into arable
land for Dust Bowl refugees.
Woody, unemployed and living in California at the time, didn’t wait for a contract (or even a formal job offer). Hearing of the potential of the job from Lomax, he packed up his family in a soon-to-be repossessed Pontiac and headed to the BPA offices in Portland, Oregon.
When Guthrie presented himself at the BPA, they weren’t sure what to do with him. The projects envisioned were still in the planning stages. The BPA eventually contracted with Woody for a months work. He was to write a song about the BPA project every workday and his pay was to be $266.66.
Given a typewriter, some desk space and reference materials about the project and the area it was meant to serve, Woody started to write. Not trusted with the keys to a company car, he was given a driver and toured the region. He would play guitar and compose new songs in the back seat while on these road trips.
He wrote of the people he met on those road trips (and those he invented). The people that came to build the Grand Coulee Dam and the people who came to settle in the paradise promised by it. He called the dam “the biggest thing that man has ever done” and seemed genuinely taken by the land and its folk and inspired by what he saw.
He wrote about Dust Bowl farmers, Jackhammer Johns and the “Powder Monkeys” that “raise the country 10 mile high”. He met migrants that “come in with the dust and leave again with the wind”, hobos, ramblers, gamblers and the women that love them. He marveled at the salmon who “run every four years, just like the politicians”.
In all, Guthrie produced 26 songs in his time as a BPA employee, including Roll On, Columbia, Pastures of Plenty, Hard Travelin’ and of course Grand Coulee Dam.
Typed, hand edited, carbon-copied in bureaucratic triplicate, these songs were dutifully submitted to the boss daily. Three were professionally recorded for the eventual soundtrack of the BPA documentary The Columbia. Others were recorded direct to acetate in a basement recording studio at BPA HQ.
Never intended for release as a recording, many were thought lost to the dumpster after a bureau recommended retention period had lapsed (or purposefully during Red Scare times). Luckily, a BPA public affairs employee (and frustrated folk musician) was screening The Columbia 40 years later and noticed Guthrie’s name in the credits. This lead him on a years long quest to rediscover Woody’s time at BPA.
Eventually three of the original acetates were recovered, including one with the only known recording of Guthrie singing Roll On, Columbia… one of his most recognizable tunes!
These and other existing recordings of the Columbia River song cycle were finally released as Rounder Records – 1036, Columbia River Collection.
This album contains 17 of the 26 songs in the cycle, all performed by Woody, including the lo-fi acetate demo versions from the BPA recording sessions.
To commemorate Woody’s time in the Northwest, Seattle DJ Greg Vandy assembled all known stories and documents of this time in his new book 26 Songs in 30 Days: Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River Songs and the Planned Promised Land in the Pacific Northwest.
It’s an easy read with plenty of historical photos and documents included. Not a rehashing of Guthrie’s early life and travels, the book includes just enough biography and local folklore to keep this month of 1941 in context.
According to recovered BPA personnel files, Woody was served his “Notice of Release” on June 11, 1941, 75 years ago today. His wife and children would remain in Portland for the summer while Woody would hitchhike east toward New York, the Almanac Singers, fame and the eventual position as founding father of the folk revival of the 50s and 60s and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
An acquaintance from BPA saw the folksinger… guitar slung on his back and thumb in the air, along the Columbia River road. He gave him a lift as far as The Dalles, Oregon, loaned him $20 and the rest is history. Roll on Woody, roll on!
* Grand Coulee Dam is 5,223 feet long, 550 feet high, and contains about 12 million cubic yards of concrete. It raises the water surface 350 feet above the old riverbed and backs the Columbia River up 151 miles, forming Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake. The total storage capacity of the reservoir is about 9.6 million acre-feet.