Broadcast: Wednesday, Aug. 25
In the spring of 1941, Woody Guthrie came to Portland for a one-month job. He was hired by the Bonneville Power Administration to write songs extolling the virtues of dams, irrigated land and federally subsidized hydropower. He ended up giving the government 26 songs in 30 days. Greg Vandy’s 2016 book about the project is titled “26 Songs in 30 Days: Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River Songs and the Planned Promised Land in the Pacific Northwest.”
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. In the Spring of 1941 Woody Guthrie came to Portland for a one month job. He was hired by the Bonneville Power Administration to write songs, extolling the virtues of dams, irrigated land and federally subsidized hydropower. If Guthrie’s most famous song reminded Americans that ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ his job in May of 1941 was to tell them that these dams were their dams, majestic projects to bring people out of poverty and to beat the Nazis, Guthrie ended up giving the government 26 songs in 30 days. They are known now as the Columbia River Songs. Greg Vandy wrote a book about the project. He hosts the Roadhouse Radio Show on Seattle’s KEXP, and I spoke to him when the book came out in 2016. We started by listening to one of Guthrie’s songs, ‘Oregon Trail.’
Woody Guthrie, singing: ‘Yeah, well the land is drying, crackling and my chickens there are cackling ‘cause of dirt and dust is getting in their craw. They’ve been laying flint rock eggs, I had to bust them with a sledge and I’m going to hit that Organ Trail this coming Fall. I’m going to hit that Oregon Trail this coming Fall. Hit that Oregon Trail this coming Fall. Heard good rain falls plenty and the crops and orchards grow. I’m going to hit that Oregon Trail this coming Fall.Well the hogs and chickens, they’re…’ (Fades)
Miller: ... chickens are laying flint rock eggs, eggs so hard you need the sledgehammer to break them open to make your morning omelet. All right, So let’s go back in time though a little bit before we get to when he wrote that and what was going on and why? What was going on in Woody Guthrie’s life before that? Before he was hired by the BPA?
Greg Vandy: We call it his winter of discontent in Los Angeles. This was early 1941, by New Year’s of the year before, few weeks before, he left New York City, a very lucrative situation, an opportunity he had for CBS Radio when he was hosting a show called the Pipe Smoking Time. It was basically a show sponsored by a tobacco company and Woody was suddenly told what to say, and what to do, and not singing his own songs. And it was a deal-breaker for him. So he left New York, left the best money he would ever make, and went back to Los Angeles where he had lived before, and was really flat broke and busking on skid row for change and supporting a wife and three kids. So the idea of singing songs for a documentary film up in Portland was appealing to him.
Miller: How well known was he at that time, as you mentioned, he had a very brief time on that radio show and some other radio shows in New York City, national radio shows. But then by this point, just before he was hired by BPA he was nearly penniless and busking. I mean would people on the street have known his voice or his music?
Vandy: No, he was not well known in 1941. And when he arrived at 811 Oregon street at the BPA building, they really didn’t know who he was. He only had one record at that time, ‘The Dust Bowl Ballads’ on Victor, it didn’t really sell super well. Folk music wasn’t exactly the most popular thing. You know, big bands were the thing. And so he was not well known. So it’s really tricky for contemporaries to understand that the Woody Guthrie we know as the legend, wasn’t really created until the fifties and sixties. So back in the early 1940s, he was not really a well-known figure.
Miller: So how was he chosen by the BPA to write these songs?
Vandy: Well, they wanted someone to sort of represent the common man to sing in that American vernacular that was sort of, in favor, at the time in the late 1930s, this idea of the real American voice and this idea of the American Vernacular was a very popular one within academic and sort of liberal circles of sort of trying to figure out who the real Americans really were during this time of Depression and this idea of social democracy that the New Deal was propagating at the time. So in this film, called ‘The Columbia,’ which was the purpose of the BPA hiring Woody Guthrie, was a need for a folk singer. And so, being a part of the Department of Interior, they called DC and talked to a guy named Al Lomax who recommended Guthrie with a flow of superlatives over the phone. Said, ‘That’s your man.’
Miller: Lomax who sort of is legendary as a guy who is working for the Library of Congress but who traveled all over the country with his acetate recorder basically just recording all of the Indigenous folk music of the country and preserving it for the rest of us.
Vandy: Right, ‘The Field Recordings.’
Miller: So Woody Guthrie, he grew up in a relatively wealthy family, upper middle-class family, in Oklahoma, didn’t really know deprivation at all growing up. How did he come to be this celebrated ‘everyman’ who could be the voice of the downtrodden?
Vandy: Well, he knew hardship for sure. He lived in the city in Okemah. He didn’t live on a farm. He admits as much in the famous 1940 Library of Congress Recordings that Alan Lomax made, just a lot of interviews in that session and Woody says, ‘Yeah I’m not really a classic ‘Okie,’ ' but he did know hardship. He definitely did, his father was beset by a series of professional failures and financial disasters and his sisters died from a fire and his mother suffered from Huntington’s Disease. So to say that Woody Guthrie did not suffer during that period would be inaccurate. He knew hardship and he saw his father basically go broke. So by the time he left Oklahoma, or actually, Pampa, Texas in the Dust Bowl area, to go to California, he had seen not only hardship in his own family, but everyone around him.
Miller: So the Department of Interior says, hey the BPA is looking for someone to do some narration, maybe act, maybe write some songs for this documentary that we want to create, about all of our dam projects. Woody Guthrie is chosen or at least he’s told maybe we’ll give you the job, we got to do some paperwork first. You have to apply for it. Instead, Woody Guthrie just drives up with his family, to the building, to Northeast Portland. What happens when he arrives there?
Vandy: Yeah, classic Woody Guthrie maneuver. Ironically, he comes from a town in the Sierra Nevadas called Columbia, California, where he was actually chopping firewood and hauling it down into town to sell. So he was really desperate. He basically was forwarded a letter from the BPA, after a visit from this guy named Gunther von Fritsch, who was helping produce the film. And it was kind of like maybe we’re going to consider you, fill out this paperwork, and so when Woody got the letter, just pretty much put the family in the car and drove up to Portland and said, ‘Here I am.’
Miller: What was he like as a father and a husband at this point?
Vandy: Well, it’s funny. He was not a very good father or husband at the time. In doing a lot of research we found a ton of interviews and source material and one was from Mary, his wife at the time, and they separated in Portland and pretty much ended their relationship after the experience of the BPA. But she said, ‘Woody, he loved people in the abstract but wasn’t great with them in reality.’
Miller: So he arrives at the BPA Headquarters there. Clearly, they gave him the job even though it wasn’t his.
Vandy: Yeah they gave it to him.
Miller: How did he actually spend those 30 days?
Vandy: You know, we tried to figure that out. He basically spent the time touring the Columbia Basin and the Columbia Gorge and going to the Grand Coulee Dam with a very colorful, one of my favorite characters of the book, Elmer Bueller. He was assigned to drive Woody Guthrie up around the area to show him what the project was all about, the landscape and what it was like in the Northwest. Woody had never been there before. And then he spent the other time in the BPA office, the original building on Oregon Street, pounding away on a metal desk and making a racket and creating the songs and working them out with Steve Khan, who is the guy who hired Woody, the PIO at the BPA at the time and Khan demanded a song a day, and that’s where we kind of get the title of the book, it’s 26 Songs in 30 Days. So I guess, you know, weekends off, but every day, Woody had to produce- and he did, he wrote 26.
Miller: Have you been able to find out what some of the Federal bureaucrats there who were very different from the sort of itinerant artistic world of Woody Guthrie, what they thought of this guy when he was at the BPA building, just hammering away, what they thought of him?
Vandy: I guess I really can’t answer that. I don’t really know what people thought, but you know, in our research, it was pretty clear that he was a distraction to a lot of these sort of bureaucrats who are trying to get their work done in the day. And he definitely was a different character, right? He’s a dusty folk singer from the Dust Bowl up there, you know in his work pants and bearded and generally pretty much unkempt and I can imagine he was quite a sight. I don’t really know what they thought, but Stephen Khan knew he had an opportunity when we walked in the door, he was looking for someone to fulfill this role for his film. And even though it was suggested a one year contract was in the works, it became a one month contract just because Kahn took advantage of Woody Guthrie being there right in front of him, with him driving into town unannounced and so he hired him for a month and he got the best out of him. This is probably, in my mind, Woody Guthrie’s most productive period of his entire life. You know, there’s some of the most classic songs he wrote in Portland for this project. Songs like ‘Roll On, Colombia,’ ‘Pastures of Plenty,’ ‘Grand Coulee Dam,’ ‘Hard Traveling.’ All these songs are just classic Woody Guthrie compositions.
Miller: We’ll hear some of those, as we go, but I want to listen to another one right now, ‘Talking Colombia,’ what should we listen for here? What should we know about this song?
Vandy: This is the talking blues form. This is something that Woody Guthrie was particularly skilled at, this idea of talking your way through the song. He’s just basically describing much of the project and he’s trying to, I think, get the listener to understand that this project was not a white elephant as it was sort of considered to be with east coast politicians. This is ‘Talking Colombia: ‘Down along the river, just a-sittn’ on a rock, I’m looking at the boats in the Bonneville Lock. Gate swings open, the boat sails in, toot that whistle, she’s gone again. Gasoline going up, wheat comin’ down. Well, I filled up my hat brim, drunk a little taste. Thought about a river, just goin’ to waste, thought about the dust and thought about the sand, thought about the people and I thought about the land. Folks running all around all over creation. Look for some kind of a little place. Well, I pulled out my pencil, scribbled this song. I figured all them salmon just couldn’t be wrong, them salmon fish is pretty shrewd. They got senators and politicians too just about like a president. They run every four years.’ (Fades)
Miller: It’s just one small example of what Woody Guthrie was able to learn in a very short time, in this case about salmon runs among other things. How was he able to write 26 songs in 30 days? Just how did he do it?
Vandy: He was a folk singer using traditional existing melodies. So it’s not exactly like he wrote the white album in 30 days. He, like most folk singers of the time, a time-tested tradition was to take existing songs, use those melodies and adapt them into whatever your purpose might be. So he was able to write rather quickly. He was also very manic about writing and he worked really hard at this and he used melodies, well he used the talking blues in that last example, used ‘Goodnight Irene,’ a couple times, ‘Wabash Cannonball.’ And this technique is very interesting in sort of an old-time approach to music because there was a lot of songs already that people shared with one another. We call that the oral tradition where certain songs are passed down from generation to generation and they’re adapted each time they’re passed on down. So you can certainly create new songs from old existing melodies and that’s what Woody Guthrie did, and that’s what all folk singers did.
Miller: A couple days ago, we asked folks if they had favorite songs from this time. We got a voicemail. This voicemail is from James, “I’m calling in about my favorite Woody Guthrie song and it’s called ‘Pastures of Plenty,’ and it’s about migrant farmworkers. It’s a really good song. It’s from the point of view of the worker and it’s just really pertinent and excellent.”
Miller: Greg Vandy, we actually have two versions of this we’re going to hear, first, the one that I think hasn’t been heard that much. This is from 1941. Let’s have a listen, and then you can tell us why this is important.
Woody Guthrie: ‘We work in your beet fields till Sundown tonight, travel 300 miles ‘fore the morning gets light. Mhm Arizona, California, we’ll make all your crops, then it’s northward to Oregon to gather your hops, strawberries, cherries and apples are best, in that land full of promise, the Pacific Northwest. Look down in the canyon and there you will see Grand Coulee showers her blessings on me...’ (Fades)
Miller: So Greg, that was ‘Pastures of Plenty’ from 1941. We also have a 1947 version which we’ll hear in just a bit. How do they differ, first?
Vandy: I couldn’t agree with your caller more. I mean ‘Pastures of Plenty’ is really probably the greatest folk song ever written and it’s about us, here in the Northwest.
Miller: That’s a big statement.
Vandy: It is. I’m going to stand by it. So that song is really the summation of the entire Columbia River song cycle. And that version is a lost version. That was the original 1941 version that Guthrie recorded for the BPA, that had been lost. What’s interesting about it is, it’s a minor chord. In terms of using it for the film, it really added to the sort of stark nature of the imagery of Dust Bowl Refugees. Later in ‘47, Woody recorded in a major key with Mo Asch for Folkways and the tone is very much different. But what’s interesting about the song is that it’s really sort of like all of the river songs. It’s a direct answer, a response to Guthrie’s earlier Dust Bowl Ballads. The record that came out the year before, in 1940. Of course, he had written them before that. But the record was out and here he is in 1941 really giving optimistic solutions to the Dust Bowl crisis that he knew a lot about. So at the end of ‘Pastures of Plenty,’ even though that’s the classic song about migrants, it provides a solution, which is the Grand Coulee Dam providing the water to irrigate the Columbia Basin to provide a second chance for those who are displaced and dispossessed from the Dust Bowl.
Miller: So let’s have a listen to the major chord version from 1947 ‘Pastures of Plenty.’
Woody Guthrie, singing: ‘California and Arizona I make all your crops. And it’s north up to Oregon to gather your hops, dig the beets from your ground, cut the grapes from your vine to set on your table, your life, sparkling wine. Uh huh. Green pastures of plenty from dry desert ground from the Grand Coulee Dam where the water runs down…[Music fades]
Miller: They’re so different. The lyrics are very similar there, but those differences in minor or major make it a completely different song. Which one do you think is more representative of what he was going for?
Vandy: I love the minor chord version. It’s a lost version. What we did on that audio clip is, all of the original BPA recordings that were sort of demos made on acetate have been lost, and they sort of resurfaced in various conditions. The minor chord ‘Pastures of Plenty’ that resurfaced in the ‘80s was really too damaged to really put on this record that Rounder put out in ‘87 called the ‘Columbia River Collection.’ So the minor chord that we just heard, that version was really pieced together from YouTube from an enterprising individual who took the song that was placed in three different sections of the film, put them together so the song can run whole.
Miller: There’s not really a precedent in U.S. history for the scale of the WPA era infrastructure, or the relationship between the Federal government and Artists and Photographers and Musicians and Muralists to make propagandistic art or just make stuff about ‘the stuff’. I’ve been trying to come up with what a contemporary parallel would be, and the best I could come up with is if in 2010, the Obama administration had said to Beyonce or to Bruce Springsteen, we’d like you to write some songs about the Affordable Care Act. Is that a fair comparison?
Vandy: No, it’s not, because this will never happen again. What’s fascinating about this story and this book, and what we discovered in the research, was that the art and the idea that the New Dealers had in creating a psychological boost as part of the recovery, during the Depression by hiring artists to create works that would not only promote the projects, but promote the idea of a social democracy in the United States, that would, the way I think about it is push the reset button on the idea of democracy, where the idea was going to be, a trickle-up economy instead of a trickle-down economy, and the working man was a starring character in this new American narrative. So, all this artwork, either funded by the New Deal Administration, for example, the Farm Security Administration, with all the amazing photographers they hired to take all those iconic images we’ve all seen. Really, that was the beginning of Photojournalism, when you look at it, to Woody Guthrie songs, to even outside of the government projects like sort of the literature of Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Frank Capra films, the Aaron Copeland music also, Carl Sandburg’s- you know the people. So all these things combined really sort of created this American Folk Revival in which the Common Man was celebrated in the face of this economic catastrophe called the Great Depression.
Miller: So we talked about what it was like when Woody Guthrie arrived at the BPA in the beginning of May. What happened at the end? How did he leave after that month?
Vandy: Well the job was over and he hitchhiked back to New York City. His marriage was over. Mary went one way, Woody went the other way. Woody soon joined up with Pete Seeger and formed the Almanac Singers and they went on to tour, ironically back to the west coast about four months later. So Woody, you know, did the gig, wrote the songs, he caught wind that the film was in jeopardy in terms of funding if it would ever get made. And in fact, World War II interrupted the film from ever coming out and it didn’t come out until 1949. So Woody had these songs in his notebook and he went on to New York and recorded most of the best ones again, with Mo Asch in the mid-40s. So he went on and this film was never really an important film or anything. What it really intended to be in terms of what Steve Kahn wanted it to be. World War II changed everything in America. And so when that ended, the purpose of the film really- there wasn’t really a need for it anymore. But Woody had his songs and he recorded them and they continue to be some of the not only best Woody Guthrie songs, but really they’re in the sort of the Pantheon of American Folk Music.
Miller: Let’s actually hear an example of that, of how the Pantheon was created and perpetuated. This is at a Memorial Concert for Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan singing ‘Grand Coulee Dam.’
Bob Dylan, singing: ‘Well, the world owns seven wonders as the travelers always tell. Some gardens and some towers, I guess you know them well. But now the greatest wonder is in Uncle Sam’s fair land, that King Columbia River and the Great Grand Coulee Dam She come up the …’ (fades)
Miller: It’s such a good version of this song. Let’s hear one more that’s probably the most famous of these songs, especially in the Pacific Northwest. It’s ‘Roll on Columbia,’ and here’s Pete Seeger introducing it, “Roll on, Columbia, roll on, roll on Columbia roll on. Your power is turning our darkness to dawn, roll on Columbia, roll on… (Narrating) Someone asked me if I’d sing this song which was written by Woody Guthrie back in 1941. He wrote it for the Bonneville Power Administration, got a job for them, working as a Research Assistant. The only way they could figure out how to hire him was to make up songs. (singing) Green Douglas Firs, where the waters cut through, down her wild mountains and canyons she flew, Canadian Northwest to the oceans so blue. Roll on, Columbia, roll on… (fades)”
Miller: Greg Vandy, you have a great quote from Guthrie early on in the book, you say, this is Guthrie speaking, “When a song or a ballad mentions the name of a river, a town, a spot, a fight, or the sound of somebody’s name that you know, are familiar with, there’s a sort of quiet kind of pride come up through your blood.” Do you think that’s happened in the Northwest as a result of these songs?
Vandy: I think we all feel that, I think that’s totally true as a local person writing about this local story that not many locals know about has really been fulfilling for me and whenever I hear these songs, especially during the research and traveling out the Grand Coulee Dam and through the Columbia Basin. These songs have relevance to me and I think everyone who lives around here.
Miller: Greg Vandy, thanks so much for joining us and congrats on this great book.
Vandy: Thank you so much.
Miller: Greg Vandy is the author of 26 songs in 30 days, Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River songs and the planned promised land in the Pacific Northwest. We spoke in 2016.