march 2012

The Grand Coulee Dam, a gravity dam on the Columbia River in Washington State, was constructed (1933-1942) to produce hydroelectric power and to provide irrigation. For a 1949 documentary designed to promote the advantages of public power, the Bonneville Power Project hired Woody Guthrie to write songs that would give the movie a 'common touch.'

A Woody Guthrie Centennial Moment

Woody Guthrie and the Columbia River

‘…one of the best bargains the U.S. government ever got.’

It is sometimes hard to believe that one month in the life of a twenty-eight-year-old Oklahoma-born folk singer could have a lasting impact on an entire geographic region, but such is the case with Woody Guthrie in the Pacific Northwest. Born and raised in Okemah, Oklahoma, and Pampas, Texas, during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, Guthrie learned to play guitar while growing up in Pampas. It was there that he met his first wife, Mary Jennings, and started the cross-country travels that would eventually take him to Portland in May 1941.

The Columbia, a documentary filmed by the Bonneville Power Administration (1949) with songs by Woody Guthrie. Contains rare footage of Grand Coulee Dam construction, Indian fishing at Celilo Falls and the 1948 Vanport flood. (Part 1)

The Columbia, a documentary filmed by the Bonneville Power Administration (1949) with songs by Woody Guthrie. Contains s rare footage of Grand Coulee Dam construction, Indian fishing at Celilo Falls and the 1948 Vanport flood. (Part 2)

Congress had passed the Bonneville Project Act in 1937 to distribute the electricity generated at Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams on the Columbia River.  The law gave publicly created utilities preference, or first choice, on that power; investor-owned utilities could buy any surplus. The law also provided a block of power to new heavy industries that bolstered the region's contributions during World War II.  A new power agency, the Bonneville Power Project, set up an office in Portland to sell the electricity as prescribed.  In 1940 the project was officially renamed the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA).

In 1938, the BPA had made a motion picture, Hydro, to inform the public about the new electricity and ways to obtain it. The agency's first public information officer, Stephen B. Kahn (1911-2007), had produced Hydro, and he wanted a second movie made to promote the advantages of public power. Believing that having a folk singer involved would help give the movie a "common touch," he wrote a job description for an actor, narrator, and songwriter to work for a year on the project.

In early 1941, Kahn contacted Allen Lomax, head of the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress. Lomax recommended his friend Woody Guthrie for the job. In late March, BPA representatives went to Los Angeles to meet with Guthrie, who was unemployed at the time. They discussed the project, took pictures, gave him application forms, and left him with the impression that the job might be his, without promising him as much.

Woody Guthrie, 'Columbia's Waters,' from the Columbia River Collection

Between that visit and Guthrie's arrival in Portland in early May, Kahn had second thoughts about a year-long appointment, primarily because it would require review by the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. He also was concerned about some of Guthrie's politics; the singer had developed a talent for controversial social commentary and criticism, taking on causes and writing songs of political protest and activism. Even though Kahn was progressive and an activist himself, he thought Guthrie's writings might have made the agency leaders nervous. So he modified the job description and made it a one-month emergency position. Kahn reasoned that the work would be finished before headquarters could get involved.

Guthrie started writing almost immediately. Taking a cue from a Columbia River history book Kahn gave him, Guthrie penned the now-famous verses to "Roll On, Columbia," which has become a Northwest anthem and the official folk song of Washington state. Kahn assigned Guthrie a driver, Elmer Buehler of Portland, who organized trips to Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams and to Mt. Hood by way of the orchard country of the Columbia River Gorge. On those trips, Guthrie scribbled down ideas for songs.

Woody Guthrie, 'Song of the Coolee Dam,' from the Columbia River Collection

Kahn required at least a song a day from Guthrie, but for Guthrie a song a day was easy, especially when he used some previously written lines and melodies that he edited to fit the Northwest scenes he was depicting. In thirty days, Guthrie wrote twenty-six songs, including "Jackhammer Blues," "Roll Columbia, Roll," "The Grand Coulee Dam," "Pastures of Plenty," and "Hard Travelin'." He was paid $266.66, which Kahn said was one of the best bargains the U.S. government ever got.

Woody Guthrie, 'Roll Columbia, Roll,' from the Columbia River Collection

While in Portland, Guthrie recorded a dozen or more of the songs onto acetate discs cut in a basement closet at the BPA building on Northeast Ninth Avenue. In 1942, Reeves Recording studio in New York recorded a half-dozen songs onto movie synchronization tracks. Three of the tracks made it to the final sound track of The Columbia, the movie produced by BPA in 1948.

Subsequently, Guthrie recorded a few of the Columbia River songs on commercial albums and others were published in songbooks, but nearly half the original collection disappeared. In 1987, the lyrics to all twenty-six songs and recordings for seventeen of them were recovered and all were published as part of BPA's fiftieth-anniversary celebration.

--by William Murlin, published in The Oregon Encyclopedia

Further Reading:
Cray, Ed. Ramblin' Man, The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.

Klein, Joe. Woody Guthrie, A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1980.

Woody Guthrie website

Woody Guthrie's Columbia River Collection is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024