Woody Guthrie, the great populist singer-songwriter from Oklahoma and formative inspiration for Bob Dylan, spent time in the Northwest and also wrote “Roll On, Columbia” in honor of the river that divides Washington and Oregon.
But most probably don’t know the details about how that and 25 other topical songs came to be written. Greg Vandy, known for his engaging KEXP roots-music show, “The Roadhouse,” lovingly unravels that tale in this cleanly written, handsomely designed and liberally illustrated book about Guthrie’s month-plus tenure based in Portland in 1941. In the bargain, Vandy contextualizes Guthrie’s story with a ton of other fascinating facts about Northwest history.
First and foremost, he makes it clear that while Guthrie was hired by the Bonneville Power Administration to ballyhoo the Grand Coulee Dam, he was by no means a corporate or government stooge, though today’s anti-dam, anti-corporate climate makes it easy to assume that. On the contrary, Guthrie saw the Grand Coulee project as a Rooseveltian populist endeavor that would not only bring electric power to the people — much as the Tennessee Valley Authority project had — but also irrigate a gigantic “pasture of plenty” (also a song title) east of the Cascades, which could accommodate the Dust Bowl refugees whose plight he and John Steinbeck had brought into public focus.
Even more fascinating is the discovery — in retrospect, unsurprising — that Roosevelt’s plan to put electrical power in the hands of public utility districts such as the ones we now enjoy was a fiercely fought political battle of the era. So yes, Guthrie was a flak, but for a government he thought was on the people’s side of the argument, just as it was in its fight against fascism in Europe.
Though he clearly admires Guthrie, Vandy does not varnish over his failings as a man, including such minor matters as having body odor so strong the BPA man assigned to drive him around kept the windows rolled down and Guthrie’s more serious wanderlust-driven neglect of his wife and family. Vandy offers a telling biography of the singer up to 1941, explaining the dire straits he found himself in when he took the government gig, and traces the public reception of the songs after they were written, as they were released on record, in various versions. As evidence of the lasting power of folk music’s oral transmission, Vandy points out that “Roll On, Columbia” entered the public imagination — through schools? summer camps? — before it found favor as a recording.
Guthrie was originally meant to be paid $3,200 for a year of employment as an actor, narrator and singer in a documentary film about the dam, but wound up writing a brace of 26 songs in a month — for $266! The government surely got the long end of that stick. Its money bought us a legacy that includes not just “Roll On, Columbia” and “Pastures of Plenty,” but “Hard Travelin',” “Grand Coulee Dam,” “It Takes a Married Man to Sing a Worried Song,” “The Ballad of Jackhammer John” and a double sawbuck of lesser-known titles. Talk about public utility district. Guthrie was a walking P.U.D. with a guitar, all on his own.