Roll, Columbia, Roll: Woody’s 26 Songs

Next month marks the 75th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River Songs and there’s a lot going on, including the release of my new book 26 Songs In 30 Days: Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River Songs & The Planned Promised Land In The Pacific Northwest [scroll down for a list of events, book readings, and our Woody Guthrie Day at the Grand Coulee Dam].

It was on May 12th, 1941 that he walked into the Bonneville Power Administration in Portland, Oregon, unannounced, guitar in hand, wife and three children in the car, seeking a job as an actor/narrator/songwriter for a proposed government documentary film promoting the consumer benefits of hydroelectricity and the concept of “public power.” Like the Tennessee Valley Authority before it, the Columbia River projects were part of FDR’s ambitious New Deal featuring the Grand Coulee Dam and the Bonneville Dam as massive public works projects designed to modernize the lives of rural people in the Pacific Northwest, who largely, by 1940, had been living without electricity. It was also a legendary fight against private power companies and an alternative to their monopolistic hold on the energy questions of the day. And of course, Woody relished a good fight.

This was a particularly important one for Guthrie, as not only would electricity modernize the life of local farmers, but he anticipated the newly irrigated Columbia Basin in Washington State to be a direct solution to the Dust Bowl crisis, and a place for migrants to “settle down,” as he would say. That was the plan. And in some very lofty, utopian-styled rhetoric of the times, it was dubbed the “Planned Promised Land” – a mighty government intervention designed as a tangible benefit for working people who had been suffering a Great Depression.

It was a hard row to hoe in the 1930s, and Woody documented it famously in his Dust Bowl Ballads, released the year before on Victor records in 1940 (though Guthrie wrote them earlier). The 26 songs Guthrie would eventually write for the BPA during his one month employment would not only be some of his best, but we (Dan Person was my co-writer) consider them to answers to his Dust Bowl Ballads – a claim we make in our book supported by the realization that if Woody’s Dust Bowl Ballads were documents of hard, dusty times, his Columbia River Songs were optimistic responses, painting a picture of green pastures of plenty in the Columbia Basin and an example of what government could do to help “his people.’ It was Democratic Socialism realized.

Here’s an excerpt from our book, about when Woody walked into that BPA office on May 12th 1941:

Woody walked in wearing the khaki work shirt and matching work pants that he seemed to wear every day. He was bearded, unkempt, and reporting for a job that wasn’t exactly his yet. It had been twelve days since the Bonneville Power Administration had sent him a letter stating that it was interested in hiring him to write songs for the agency and asking him to fill out paperwork to facilitate the hiring process. Instead, there he was, unannounced, holding a guitar and eating an apple, at the BPA headquarters at 811 NE Oregon Street in Portland, with his wife and three kids waiting outside in the car.

His hobo-beatnik style wasn’t exactly what employees at the government agency were used to seeing. The BPA, just four years old at that point, was made up of engineers and bureaucrats. The only people who could have any use for a dusty folksinger were in the public information office, the head of which soon fetched Woody and shepherded him to his desk.

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. “The idea that Woody would actually get a job writing ballads was just an inconceivable stroke, I felt like shouting over the telephone line, it was a laughing conversation all the way. I can remember the delight and [sense] of triumph I felt that Woody would get a chance to do this,” Lomax recollected later.

The job Lomax recommended Guthrie for was a yearlong gig to be an actor, narrator, and singer in the documentary The Columbia: America’s Greatest Power Stream. That was still the job description when Gunther von Fritsch visited Guthrie to take some photos in Los Angeles. And it was even the job description mentioned in the letter the BPA sent to Woody on the first of May—“Narrator-Actor, $3200 per annum.” However, the May 1 letter also stated that the Department of Interior in Washington, DC, needed to approve the one-year contract. That, Kahn sensed from the start, could be a problem. The film’s budget was tenuous, and war was looming. Then there was Woody’s background. 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.

Still, while Kahn hadn’t officially offered Guthrie a job in the first place, now that he was standing in front of him, 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.

Raver had taken over the BPA shortly after J. D. Ross’s untimely death in 1939. A gaunt, bespectacled former Northwest University professor, Raver wasn’t the enthusiastic public-power advocate that Ross had been. He considered it inappropriate, for example, for the agency to get too involved in local PUD elections. Perhaps anticipating Raver’s conservative tendencies and fear- ing 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.

Woody 75th Anniversary Events:

Fri 4/29: Greg Vandy and Charley Cross discuss 26 Songs In 30 Days with music from Cahalan Morrison and Mike Giacolino (Ol’ Tinder) @ Town Hall in Seattle. FREE
Sun 5/1: Greg Vandy book reading and signing @ Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge. FREE
Mon 5/9: Greg Vandy book reading and discussion with Steve Turner (Mudhoney) @ Powell’s Books on Hawthorne, Portland. FREE
Thurs 5/26: A Tribute ro Woody Guthrie & His Month of Song Concert, featuring John Doe, Dave Alvin, Bill Frisell, Shelby Earle, Sera Cahoone, Ian Moore, etc @ Benaroya Hall in Seattle
Sat 5/28: Woody Guthrie Day @ Grand Coulee Dam: Book reading, film screening, panel discussion, and music. FREE
Mon 5/30: FolkLife- Woody Guthrie stage show plus a book reading and film screening @ SIFF Theatre at Seattle Center. FREE