Various artists — including David Grisman, Peter Buck, and John Moen and Chris Funk — cover the 26 songs Woody Guthrie wrote in 30 days for the Bonneville Power Association on the new album, “Roll Columbia: Woody Guthrie’s 26 Northwest Songs.”
The image of legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie as a “Dust Bowl Troubadour” — an Oklahoma native who followed fellow refugee-farmers to California, performed traditional and political songs in migrant labor camps and wrote about all he saw and heard — is enshrined in American popular culture.
Less known is that Guthrie, during a short but remarkably fruitful period, did much the same thing right here in the Pacific Northwest.
As a passenger in a black Hudson driven by a public-information employee of the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), a 28-year-old Guthrie — on the heels of writing his most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land” — spent part of May 1941 traveling to communities and migrant camps up and down the Columbia River.
‘Roll Columbia: Woody Guthrie’s 26 Northwest Songs’
Various artists, being released Jan. 27 on Smithsonian Folkways.
Guthrie played guitar and sang for people living a hardscrabble, Great Depression-era existence in Washington and Oregon. But the Communist-leaning artist was also turning his impressions of the region and its old and new inhabitants into a song cycle for a U.S. federal agency: the BPA itself, a then-new utility that would bring hydroelectric power to Northwest residents and help irrigate Eastern Washington farms.
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The full story of Guthrie’s brief stint as a BPA employee was told in last year’s book by Greg Vandy (with Daniel Person), “26 Songs in 30 Days.” Now, for the first time, all those songs will be heard on a double album: “Roll Columbia: Woody Guthrie’s 26 Northwest Songs,” released Jan. 27 by Smithsonian Folkways.
“Roll Columbia” finds Northwest musicians performing rootsy, sometimes gritty covers of Guthrie’s astonishingly prolific output from his days here, including many songs he never recorded.
The album arrives at a moment when there is a certain amount of attention on Guthrie around these parts. Besides the publication of local author Vandy’s book, a couple of theater pieces have opened this month. Centerstage, in Federal Way, offered “Hard Travelin’ with Woody,” a one-man, multimedia tribute starring actor-singer Randy Noojin (ends today, Jan. 22), while Seattle Repertory Theatre has “Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie,” featuring David Lutken (through Jan. 29).
Guthrie’s time at the BPA, during which he wrote familiar classics “Pastures of Plenty,” “Hard Travelin’” and “Roll On Columbia, Roll On,” was so fleeting, the story behind it nearly vanished and took years to reconstruct.
That task largely fell to Bill Murlin, both a BPA public-information specialist hired in 1979 and a musician who began performing during the folk-music revival of the early 1960s. The now-retired Murlin discovered Guthrie had been asked to participate in a documentary film touting the Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams as important public-works projects needing laborers.
The film’s completion was shelved for years, but Guthrie was paid $266 for all the songs.
Murlin, who organized the ambitious “Roll Columbia” project with banjoist-archivist Joe Seamons, says recording all that material with an array of artists “is no small task.”
“But we decided to reflect the Northwest by having voices from all over, people who were born here or who moved here. We wanted them to do their thing but stay true to the spirit of Woody Guthrie.”
Among them are such bluegrass and folk veterans as Michael Hurley, David Grisman (with Tracy Grisman and George Rezendes), and Orville Johnson. Also on hand are R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck with Scott McCaughey and “Roll Columbia” album producer Jon Neufeld; and John Moen and Chris Funk of the Decemberists.
Murlin and his trio, Fine Company, are present, and Seamons appears both with his group Timberbound and duo partner Ben Hunter.
Exploring Guthrie’s chapter in the Northwest involved deep research, detective work and luck.
Murlin got the ball rolling in the early 1980s, trying to find all those songs. Eventually, documentation, rare acetate discs and other resources resulted in a complete songbook, but an album with only 17 tracks.
“Nine of the manuscripts had no notes or chords,” Murlin says. “I sent those to Pete Seeger, and asked, ‘Did he ever play this stuff for you?’ [Seeger] said he was familiar with some of the nine songs, while others he could figure out the melody based on meter. For one [“Lumber is King”], he created a melody.”
For Seamons, raised a rural Oregonian and steeped in vintage Northwest folk music centered on logging, sawmills and fishing, the Guthrie material is a huge part of our regional music history.
“The Columbia River songs represent a high-water mark in Woody’s entire career,” he says.
“He gave the BPA what it wanted: The Depression had been ravaging America, and an inconceivable amount of homeless people were trying to find their way. But he also captured a moment so poignantly. When he saw migrants in Northwest camps, he’d say, ‘This is who I identify with.’ He was the voice of the underdog, and though he could have chosen another path and been just as famous, he chose to keep being the voice of those people.”