Woody Guthrie, circa 1939. Photo from the Daily Worker/Daily World Photo Collection in box 36, folder 7113; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University Back To All Blog Posts

Woody Guthrie in Washington

How just one month in the Pacific Northwest changed the course of the folk singer’s life – and the course of American music.

  • October 27, 2020
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  • Feature
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  • By Greg Vandy with Daniel Person

Woody Guthrie walked into the Bonneville Power Administration headquarters in Portland, Oregon, wearing the khaki work shirt and matching work pants that he seemed to wear every day. He was bearded, unkempt, and reporting for a job that wasn’t exactly his yet.

It had been twelve days since the BPA had sent him a letter stating that it was interested in hiring him to write songs for the agency and asking him to fill out paperwork to facilitate the hiring process. Instead, there he was, unannounced, holding a guitar and eating an apple, with his wife and three kids waiting outside in the car. The blue Pontiac was now in even worse shape than when it was used to haul firewood in the Sierra Nevadas. Guthrie had busted a window when he’d locked the keys inside, the upholstery was ripped, and the vehicle looked generally lived-in. His hobo-beatnik style wasn’t exactly what employees at the government agency were used to seeing. The BPA, just four years old at that point, was made up of engineers and bureaucrats. The only people who could have any use for a dusty folksinger were in the public information office, the head of which soon fetched Woody and shepherded him to his desk.

Stephen Kahn had heard of Woody Guthrie but had never heard his music, let alone met the man. He’d gotten his name from Alan Lomax, who had recommended Guthrie for Kahn’s documentary project with a flow of superlatives over the phone from Washington, DC.

The job Lomax recommended Guthrie for was a yearlong gig to be an actor, narrator, and singer in the documentary The Columbia: America’s Greatest Power Stream. However, the job was far from certain. The film’s budget was tenuous, and war was looming. Then there was Woody’s background. Even though Kahn was a liberal himself and an activist for public power, hiring another activist who wrote columns for a communist newspaper, a known agitator and sometimes radical, was a whole other deal.

Still, while Kahn hadn’t officially offered Guthrie a job in the first place, now that he was standing in front of him, he didn’t want to let an opportunity pass.

“He had his guitar, and I said, ‘Play me something,’” Kahn recalled. “And I listened. And I said, ‘Woody, I think you have the common touch.’”

The job description said that during his one-month employment, he would research the Columbia, study farmers’ use of electricity, and determine the feasibility of creating a documentary and radio programs about it all. Only in the last sentence does it add “narrating and arrangement of musical accompaniment.”

He said, ‘What kinda songs you want, Steve?’” Kahn recounted. “I said, ‘Well, the purpose of the development of this river is to raise the standards of living for the people around here by giving them water and power and navigation and flood control and the whole bit.’ He said, ‘Geez, that’s a big order.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s why we got you.’

After an impromptu audition for Kahn’s boss, Woody walked out with the job. Though he asked for one more thing: fifty cents to buy a hamburger. Kahn obliged.

* * *

Guthrie thrived in the framework laid out for him. He had an assignment, a purpose, doing what he did best—writing topical songs about things he cared about. He considered it a patriotic effort to promote something he deeply believed in: the government by the people, working for the people.

In a letter written twenty-seven days into his assignment, he wrote friends in New York: “This Pacific Northwest is a country of wild rivers and rocky canyons and is one of the prettiest places you ever looked at. Uncle Sam is putting big power dams all along the rivers to produce electricity for public ownership and distribution through the people’s utility districts in every town and countryside and the main job is to force the private-owned concerns to sell out to the government by selling power at lower rates.”

Credit: The Bureau of Land Reclamation

The monthlong job didn’t make the Guthrie family flush, but it allowed them to rent a place with electricity and buy groceries—both improvements over their situation for the first part of the year so far. He was apparently so taken with having his money that he made an odd show of it. One BPA employee recalled seeing him take a pencil rubbing of a silver dollar, then writing beneath it: “This dollar once belonged to Woody Guthrie.”

“He wrote at night,” Mary Guthrie said. “When Woody would come home, he always had notebooks and songs with him. He would go over these songs many times and I’m sure add more to them before the day was over.” From the outset, Guthrie showed an uncanny ability to absorb the complex history of and plans for the Columbia Basin and to distill it all into simple, catchy stanzas of verse.

“I gave him a book on the Columbia River and he produced two songs like you’d snap your fingers,” Kahn recalled. Among those was the song “Roll On, Columbia,” which he started writing his first day on the job, using the melody from Lead Belly’s “Good Night Irene.”

* * *

Not long before Woody’s trip, over the course of a weekend in June 1940, Native Americans from across the Pacific Northwest gathered in Kettle Falls, Washington, for a three-day “Ceremony of Tears.”

For thousands of years, the tribes of the Pacific Northwest were sustained by the salmon runs of the Columbia River. They called the area “Roaring Waters” or “Keep Sounding Water,” and as many as fourteen tribes traditionally congregated there during salmon runs in order to fish and trade. It was an ideal spot for fishing, as the eponymous waterfalls blocked the salmon’s passage up the river, causing a mighty traffic jam of fish. There were so many, legend said a man could walk across the water on the backs of the writhing spawners.

But that June, tribal members knew that the falls, and the salmon, would soon be gone forever. The Grand Coulee Dam—the massive structure that Woody Guthrie would call the “mightiest thing man has ever done”—would soon be completed, backing up the river and creating a lake behind the dam, submerging the falls under ninety feet of water. Also submerged would be tracts of the Colville and Spokane Indian Reservations, requiring the relocation of more than twelve hundred graves. The salmon, meanwhile, already greatly impeded by the Bonneville Dam downriver, would be entirely cut off from a huge swath of their natural spawning ground. Within a few short weeks, the land that had sustained these people for thousands of years would be utterly transformed by an audacious feat of engineering that still stands today as one of the most ambitious—and, some argue, arrogant—in human history.

By today’s thinking, it can be difficult to understand why a folksinger like Woody Guthrie, who proved willing to walk away from good money based on principles before, so vociferously endorsed a project like the Grand Coulee Dam. It killed salmon, took away tribal land, and powered war industries—all factors well understood by the time Guthrie arrived.

While some people have castigated Guthrie for his support of the dams, others have tried to apologize for him by suggesting he was naive and didn’t understand what he was being asked to endorse. Neither point of view gets to the more complicated truth

Some lyrics don’t stand up to modern scrutiny, specifically, the celebration of the Native American wars in “Roll On, Columbia” that today are recognized as a near-genocidal government policy. In addressing the controversial lyrics, Arlo Guthrie said his father later “scratched them out and didn’t use them.” Buehler’s account of Woody’s time in the Northwest suggests he didn’t hold any ill will toward Native Americans. Rather, one of his favorite parts of the trip was meeting tribal members at Celilo Falls, which was an even larger salmon-fishing area than Kettle Falls was. At the falls, fishermen would perch precariously over the raging waters on what looked like rickety wooden docks in order to snag salmon with dip nets. Celilo Falls was eventually drowned by the completion of The Dalles Dam in 1957, but at the time it was still an important gathering spot.

“He was very much interested in the Indians that were up there. He looked upon them as the common people too,” said Buehler.

Guthrie was deeply affected by the collapse of the Oklahoma and Texas economies due to prolonged drought, and the limited options open to the dispossessed farmers who migrated to California. He was also impressed by the efforts of the federal government to help migrant workers in Southern California—via the farm labor camps where he performed and Weedpatch Camp, which Steinbeck featured in The Grapes of Wrath. To Woody Guthrie, the Dust Bowl balladeer, the Columbia River project was an ambitious solution to the Dust Bowl, and his songs were direct answers to his earlier Dust Bowl Ballads, published the year before in 1940. He saw the dams as the answer to the ills of his time and the path forward for his people.

But there’s undoubtedly a something-for-nothing quality to Guthrie’s Columbia River work, a suggestion that damming the Columbia wouldn’t diminish the wild character of the river he was clearly in love with, and an ignoring of the profound effects the dam would have on the area’s Native people.

* * *

Of course, Guthrie didn’t simply sit in Portland, read books, and write songs based on what the BPA told him. He struck out into the country to see what all the fuss was about.

He wasn’t trusted with a government car, Kahn said, considering the sorry state of his Pontiac upon his arrival. Instead he was assigned a driver—a man named Elmer Buehler.

For the rest of his life, Buehler remembered those days on the road with Woody Guthrie. They were in a “shiny 1940 black Hudson Hornet,” with Buehler at the wheel and Guthrie working on songs in the backseat.

“We didn’t talk much, because he was always strumming his guitar and jotting notes,” Buehler said. “He had a job to do.”

One BPA employee recalled seeing him take a pencil rubbing of a silver dollar, then writing beneath it: “This dollar once belonged to Woody Guthrie.”

The Northwest was a wild country, like nothing Woody had ever seen, and the beauty had him awestruck. Buehler drove him east along the river and through the orchards of the Willamette Valley, then to visit the already-fading timber towns of Dee and Parkdale. But it was a side trip to Lost Lake, in the shadow of Mount Hood, that had perhaps the biggest impact. Surrounded on all sides by thick virgin forests, the lake was a revelation for Guthrie. “He just stood there in awe,” Buehler recalled, “and he said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this. I am in paradise.’” Woody worked what he saw into his new songs—cherries, peaches, apples, wheat, and other crops. He also saw hops for the first time, which must have thrilled him, considering how often he consumed its by-product.

As they drove along, they kept the windows down—Buehler said Guthrie had body odor, noting several times in his various interviews that his stench was often overpowering. As they traveled along the Columbia River Gorge and into the wide desert plains of Eastern Washington, Guthrie picked away at his songs. “He would play his guitar, apparently composing things as we drove along,” Buehler said. No definitive itinerary of Guthrie and Buehler’s road trip exists, but they most likely followed the Columbia River into South-Central Washington, then crossed what was still an unirrigated expanse of desert to Spokane. From Spokane, it was a straight shot west to the Grand Coulee Dam site, where they could pick the river back up and follow it, more or less, all the way to Portland. With Buehler as guide, Guthrie saw the bucolic Willamette Valley; picturesque Hood River, in the gorge; Lake Chelan (Guthrie thought the Chelan River would be a great place for another dam); the apple orchards of Wenatchee; and, of course, Grand Coulee. Prior to the advent of the Interstate Highway System, it could be slow going on two-lane roads through the parched dun-colored country around the Columbia River, and they made many stops. Buehler took Woody to see factories and logging yards along the way. As planned, they also dropped in at Grange meetings and other gatherings, allowing Woody to meet the people and experience what they did.

Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Guthrie didn’t extend such courtesies to everyone he met, however. In Spokane, he was asked to play “background music” for the local chamber of commerce. “I wouldn’t play background music for any chamber of commerce, let alone foreground music,” he sniffed.

Woody never wavered in his contempt for money traders, but this new “planned promised land” appealed to him. The tangible benefits of jobs, farming opportunities, and better living conditions were inspiring to him, and sparked a creative impulse. As the nation emerged from the worst depression in its history, Guthrie saw the Grand Coulee as irrefutable proof of the value and might of the American worker.

* * *

When he wasn’t on the road, Guthrie was given a desk in the corner of the BPA’s public information office. He was generally well liked in the office. According to witnesses, he was “free and easy in his conversation with everybody and was completely uninhibited—but he was diamond sharp.” Still, the unusual nature of Guthrie’s work led to unusual scenes there. He banged out rhythms on his metal desk, quite a distraction to other employees, and his body odor remained an issue; Buehler claimed several of the BPA secretaries complained about the stench that emanated from the new employee. Guthrie didn’t hesitate to strike up conversations around the office. And he’d sometimes sit on the corner of Kahn’s desk and hash out folk tunes, Kahn humming along as Guthrie strummed his guitar.

“I thought Woody’s songs would be very effective in reaching the common man,” Kahn said. “I didn’t envision that they would become nationally popular, because I was not aware fully of what the people were listening to or what they were singing, but I recognized talent there, originality and personality.” Guthrie, too, seemed happy with his work.

On June 10, Guthrie wrote friends in New York that he’d be heading their way soon. With his car still in the impound lot, his plan was to hitchhike.

Caring for their three kids, ages eighteen months to five years, Mary was staying put in Portland. Exhausted by the nomadic lifestyle and years of poverty, she and Woody never lived under the same roof again. By the fall they were officially separated. They divorced in March of 1943.

With the United States entering the war at the end of 1941, The Columbia documentary that Guthrie was originally enlisted for as actor, singer, and composer was put on hold. It wasn’t until 1948 that a pared-down version was released to little public attention. The songs Guthrie wrote for it during his time in the Pacific Northwest, however, including “Roll On, Columbia, Roll On,” “Pastures of Plenty,” and “Grand Coulee Dam,” would become vital parts of the 1960’s folk revival and our greater American cultural fabric.

On June 11, Guthrie started walking down the highway that followed the course of the river that he now knew so well, a guitar over his back and a thumb in the air. Just outside Portland, a young lawyer named Gus Solomon pulled up alongside the folksinger. He was the BPA’s lawyer at the time and had met Guthrie at the offices. “Woody, where are you going?” Solomon asked. “I’m going to New York,” he said.

“How will you get there?”

“I’m going to hitchhike,” Guthrie said without any note of irony. “Do you have any money?” Solomon asked. Guthrie said he did not.

Broke as the day he got there, Guthrie accepted twenty dollars and a ride to The Dalles. From there, he continued on east, where there were more songs to be sung


Greg Vandy is the host of The Roadhouse on KEXP and a local tastemaker for independent roots music. Vandy co-publishes “American Standard Time,” a blog dedicated to American music and vintage lifestyles, and curates the Pickathon music festival.

Daniel Person’s work has appeared in High Country News, Seattle Weekly, Montana Quarterly, and Outside Online.

This article was adapted from the book 26 Songs in 30 Days: Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River Songs and The Planned Promised Land in the Pacific Northwest, excerpted by permission of Sasquatch Books.

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