Inquiring Minds Illuminated Woody Guthrie’s Time in the Northwest

In this installment of 40 Years of Washington Stories, Spark looks at the Inquiring Minds presenters who brought Woody Guthrie to life.

Carl Allen performed as Woody Guthrie through Humanities Washington's Inquiring Minds program.

Carl Allen performed as Woody Guthrie from 1998 through 2009 as part of Humanities Washington’s Inquiring Minds program. Allen would sing from Guthrie’s Columbia Songbook and answer audience questions in character.

Humanities Washington is celebrating our 40th anniversary with 40 Years of Washington Stories. Each week on Spark, we’ll offer a snapshot from our past, sharing forty years of stories that have helped shape the humanities in Washington state.

Woody Guthrie’s single month of employment by the Bonneville Power Administration was one of his most prolific songwriting periods. Hired by the Department of the Interior to write music for a documentary on the Grand Coulee Dam, Guthrie eventually wrote 26 songs in just 30 days. Among these is the song “Roll On, Columbia, Roll On,” which eventually became the state folk song of Washington.

Guthrie’s time at Bonneville was a popular subject for the speakers in Humanities Washington’s Inquiring Minds Program, which sent speakers out to libraries, museums and community centers across the state. In 1984, historian Dave Nicandri toured with a presentation entitled Woody Guthrie and The Bonneville Power Administration, which featured footage from The Columbia, one of Bonneville Power’s promotional films for which Guthrie wrote music. Folk Musician Carl Allen joined the Inquiring Minds roster in 1998 as a Guthrie impersonator, continuing to perform the Columbia River songs through 2009.

Through the efforts of folks like Nicandri and Allen, the Inquiring Minds presentation series brought Guthrie’s Washington legacy to life at community gatherings across the state. The Inquiring Minds Program was reincarnated as Humanities Washington’s Speakers Bureau, more information about which can be found here.

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