The pay was $266 for a month of work—good money in 1941, and really good money in any era for folk songwriting. When the Department of the Interior offered folk singer Woody Guthrie a job writing songs about the Columbia River and its magnificent dams, he took it.
Government propaganda—it seems like an odd gig for the “This Land Is Your Land” writer, a man who played union halls and pro-Communist gatherings in New York with Pete Seeger and Burl Ives. Guthrie’s remembered as the patron singer of hobos and activists, a man Bob Dylan idolized like everyone else idolizes Bob Dylan.
But working for the government isn’t such a big stretch. This was the era of the New Deal and the Works Progress Administration, says UW Tacoma historian Michael Honey. “Rebuilding the American economy through public works—that fit perfectly with what Guthrie thought the government should be doing,” he says.
In a month Guthrie wrote 26 songs; in folk style, the tunes are traditional and the themes are humble. They praise the hydroelectric feats built by the Bonneville Power Administration, as per the job description; one tune traces American history from the revolution to the end of slavery before proclaiming, “The big Grand Coulee Dam in the state of Washington / Is just about the biggest thing that man has ever done.” Guthrie praises fruit-picker unions and makes explicit ties to the Dust Bowl that ravaged his Oklahoma home: “We come with the dust and we go with the wind.”
The most famous tune composed during the whirlwind was “Roll On Columbia.” The official version is a familiar refrain about the river’s power, but original drafts alluded to 19th century Native American skirmishes: “The wild Indian warriors to the tall timber run / We hung every Indian with smoke in his gun.”
The verses disappeared by the time Guthrie recorded the Columbia River Collection, and historians can’t quite confirm that Guthrie wrote them at all. Even University of Washington’s Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest uses them in classroom materials but isn’t sure the Indian-hanging words are really his. Guthrie was proud of Oklahoma’s native heritage, says biographer Gustavus Stadler; plus, he says, “He thought of himself as a documentarian in a lot of ways. He was trying to represent this history honestly.”
The Columbia River Ballads represent one of Guthrie’s most prolific songwriting stints, and later he’d rave about the Pacific Northwest’s “mineral mountains…chemical deserts…rough run canyons.” Washington adopted “Roll On Columbia” as the official state folk song in 1987. Today Sounders fans sing it at the 12th minute of home matches at CenturyLink Field, meaning the progressive anthem from a propaganda-writing folk hero has become, finally, a fight song.