In May 1941, Woody Guthrie walked into the Bonneville Power Administration office in Portland, Oregon—bearded, unkempt, and clutching a guitar. “The Department of Interior folks got ahold of me,” Guthrie wrote. “[They] took me into a clothes closet and melted my songs down onto records.” Guthrie’s fertile 30-day sojourn in the Pacific Northwest, when he road-tripped throughout the Columbia River basin—composing 26 songs celebrating the rugged landscape, the majestic river, and the Grand Coulee Dam’s promise of prosperity through irrigation and affordable electricity—is the subject of the new book 26 Songs in 30 Days: Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River Songs and the Planned Promised Land in the Pacific Northwest (Sasquatch Books).
“It’s difficult to describe this one-month period in his life because there are no photographs or records,” says co-author Greg Vandy, who hosts KEXP radio’s roots music show The Roadhouse. Even the recordings were thought lost, until acetate copies made by agency employees were discovered in the 1980s.
The Columbia River song cycle includes classics such as “Roll on Columbia,” “The Biggest Thing that Man Has Ever Done,” and “Pastures of Plenty,” and Guthrie completed it for the princely sum of $266.66. “My father needed the job,” says Nora Guthrie (Vandy consulted the Woody Guthrie Foundation during research for his book). According to Nora, Woody had just walked off a top-paying job at CBS radio in New York due to censorship. “He was out of work, with a wife and three babies in tow, (when) the government said, ‘Write your own songs.’ No one told him what he could or couldn’t say.”
Vandy adds, “Woody was primarily concerned with alleviating the suffering brought on by drought and depression.” Guthrie believed that fertile land and electric power provided by the Columbia River project would benefit displaced Okies, who he memorialized on his 1940 album Dust Bowl Ballads. The Columbia River songs are Guthrie’s direct answers and optimistic solutions to those harrowing, hardscrabble dustbowl tunes, Vandy maintains. “‘Pastures of Plenty,’ arguably the greatest folk song ever written, is about the migrant experience and the idea that all share this land, but it is also an actual place [the Grand Coulee Dam],” Vandy says. A gravity dam on the Columbia River in Washington State, the Grand Coulee was completed in 1942 in the Columbia basin, transforming what was once a great desert into “pastures of plenty.”
The BPA’s public works success is forever preserved in popular culture thanks to Guthrie.
“Three years ago I was at the opening of the David Bowie exhibit in Berlin,” Nora Guthrie says. “I put on the headset, and I hear ‘Roll on Columbia.’ The first panel of the exhibit is about how Bowie grew up with Lonnie Donegan singing that song and ‘Grand Coulee Dam’ on TV. All these teenagers—John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and David Bowie—they were hearing Woody’s songs, and that’s why they took up guitars.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.