“It was April 1941, and a man that Woody referred to as ‘some feller from the Dept. of Interior’ came by his Los Angeles home to chat with him about a film being shot along the Columbia River in Oregon and Washington State. That ‘feller’ was Gunther von Fritsch, a Hollywood producer who had signed on with Steve Kahn to make a documentary for the Bonneville Power Administration. Von Fritsch told Guthrie they were interested in hiring him for a year to act and narrate in the film, as well as write some songs about river and its federal projects. Stephen Kahn had heard of Woody Guthrie but had never heard his music, let alone met the man. He’d gotten his name from Alan Lomax, who had recommended Guthrie for Kahn’s documentary project with a flow of superlatives over the phone from Washington, DC.
It was a yearlong gig to be an actor, narrator, and singer in the documentary The Columbia: America’s Greatest Power Stream. But the agency needed approval from Washington DC for one-year appointments. That, Kahn sensed from the start, could be a problem, considering Woody’s leftist background. Also Woody’s hobo-beatnik style wasn’t exactly what employees at the government agency were used to seeing. Even though Kahn was clearly a liberal himself and an activist for public power, hiring another activist who wrote columns for a communist newspaper, a known agitator and sometimes radical, was a whole other deal.
While Kahn hadn’t officially offered Guthrie a job in the first place, now that he was standing in front of him (after Guthrie drove to Portland from Los Angeles), he didn’t want to let an opportunity pass. “’He had his guitar, and I said, “Play me something,”‘ Kahn recalled. ‘And I listened. And I said, “Woody, I think you have the common touch.”‘ The solution Kahn came up with right then and there was an emergency appointment, for one month. Such an appointment required approval only from within the agency, by the BPA’s administrator, Paul Raver. Kahn set up an impromptu audition with the boss.
Perhaps anticipating Raver’s conservative tendencies and fearing that Woody might start spouting ideology, Kahn gave the singer a warning. ‘Just play your guitar and sing your songs,’ he said. ‘If you talk, you’ll lose the battle.’ Woody sat on Raver’s desk and did his best version of himself–‘the man who told you something you already know’ with the Will Rogers charm. He played songs for Raver and kept his talking to a minimum. About thirty minutes later, Woody walked out with the job.“
Guthrie wrote 26 songs for the film between May 12-June 11th 1941. Only three were ultimately used in the film, including “Roll, Columbia, Roll” as heard in this clip from the film The Columbia.