THE YEAR 2016 marked the 75th anniversary of one of the more notable months of Woody Guthrie’s distinguished songwriting career. Hired by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) to write a series of songs touting the wonders of the coming hydroelectric revolution, Guthrie left Los Angeles penniless, and drove himself and his young family to Portland to survey the ongoing construction of the Bonneville Dam and the surrounding Columbia River Gorge. Guthrie penned 26 songs in 30 days, frankensteining melodies and lyrical roadmaps from his considerable back catalog of tunes for the BPA. He received $267 for his troubles.
Last year also marked the 75th birthday of Bill Murlin, a folksinger and BPA employee who in 1983 rediscovered nine long-lost songs through acetate disc recordings, lyric sheets, and other documents from Guthrie’s BPA employment. Murlin oversaw the subsequent 1987 publication of these forgotten gems, which reintroduced the story of Guthrie’s brief but poignant time in the Northwest—a songwriting binge that produced some of his best-known music, including “Pastures of Plenty,” “Roll On, Columbia,” and “Hard Travelin’.”
This month, Smithsonian Folkways is releasing Roll Columbia: Woody Guthrie’s 26 Northwest Songs, featuring 28 tracks—including two versions of both “Pastures of Plenty” and “Jackhammer Blues”—from a cross-section of Pacific Northwest artists that includes Michael Hurley, Cahalen Morrison, Peter Buck, Annalisa Tornfelt, John Moen, Chris Funk, and many more. Murlin performs with his ensemble Fine Company on both “Guys on the Grand Coulee Dam” and “Roll, Columbia Roll.” “It’s an important story to the Northwest and a significant cog in Guthrie’s life, despite the brief tenure of his time here,” says Murlin.
Jackstraw/Black Prairie guitarist and producer Jon Neufeld helmed the sessions along with Joe Seamons, a Guthrie researcher and musician. The songs had originally been commissioned to accompany a documentary about the BPA and its job-creating, power-sharing prowess to a post-Depression Northwest still finding its economic footing. Guthrie’s panoramic songs focused both on the minutiae of the day-to-day goings-on, but also included an uncanny foresight regarding the consequences of the pollution Guthrie was already noting in private letters.
“Woody was witness to what this development was creating,” Seamons says. “Being a refugee of the Dust Bowl, he knew perfectly well what overdevelopment did to the land and to the environment.”
Guthrie’s perceived clairvoyance was not strictly relegated to his observations of his immediate environment.
“[Guthrie] was writing about flying saucers, feminism, all this stuff way ahead of his time in 1950,” explains Jeff Place, senior archivist at Smithsonian Folkways. “Billy Bragg always felt that if Woody had been born later, he would have been a Beat poet in the ’50s or a punk rocker in the ’80s. He had that kind of spirit.”
Roll Columbia is being released a week after the inauguration of Donald Trump, whose father Fred Trump was Guthrie’s landlord in 1950s New York City. Over half a century later, Guthrie’s recorded grievances with “Old Man Trump” are strikingly ironic. This timeless quality colors his most enduring songs, which is ultimately what provokes fans, curators, and musicians to revisit Guthrie’s vast catalog.
“He’s got soul embedded into the songs,” Neufeld says. “That never gets tired or dated. The same things he was fighting for and writing about back then are still very much at the forefront of people’s thoughts today.”