Woody Guthrie traveled to Portland, Ore., in the spring of 1941 to write songs for the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). Although this phase of his career is not as familiar as others, it was a prolific one, and the 26 songs he penned over 30 days included some of his best-known work: “Pastures of Plenty,” “Hard Travelin’,” and “Roll On, Columbia, Roll On,” which later became the state folk song of Washington.
Now, 75 years later, a group of musicians celebrate this period in the iconic songwriter’s life on ‘Roll Columbia: Woody Guthrie’s 26 Northwest Songs.’ The two-disc album, out Jan. 27, 2017, on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, features members of R.E.M., Black Prairie, and The Decemberists; folk veterans like Michael Hurley and David Grisman; and younger players from the Pacific Northwest folk scene. ‘Roll Columbia’ is the first album to include all of Guthrie’s BPA songs, including nine that have never previously been recorded.
This collection marks the latest chapter in the rich history between Folkways Records and Woody Guthrie, who is one of the label’s foundational figures. Guthrie cut many of his most famous recordings for Folkways founder Moses Asch during the 1940s.
The Bonneville Power Administration, a New Deal–era public works agency created in 1937, commissioned Guthrie to write the series of songs to help promote the benefits of dams being constructed along the Columbia River. Renowned ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax had recommended Guthrie for the project, and Guthrie moved from California to Portland, being paid little more than $10 a song for his month’s work.
For ‘Roll Columbia,’ musician and teacher Joe Seamons and folklorist and former BPA employee Bill Murlin enlisted a cross-generational mix of musicians with ties to the Pacific Northwest. Michael Hurley, the 74-year-old veteran of the Greenwich Village scene who released his debut album on Folkways in 1965, begins the collection with a version of “Pastures of Plenty” accompanied by Jon Neufeld of Portland-based folk group Black Prairie. Kate Power and Steve Einhorn, a Portland duo with a background in New York City’s ’60s folk scene, harmonize on “Roll On, Columbia, Roll On,” while Juno-winning roots-music act Pharis & Jason Romero cover “It Takes a Married Man to Sing a Worried Song.”
“Like some western Chaucer, Woody assembles a colorful cast of western characters to tell the story of Northwest public power’s early days,” Lomax wrote in the foreword of a 1987 book compiling the 26 songs. Many of the songs in the cycle borrowed from familiar melodies like “Good Night Irene,” “Pretty Polly,” “The Wabash Cannonball,” and “Mule Skinner Blues.”
‘Roll Columbia: Woody Guthrie’s 26 Northwest Songs’ features two versions of “Pastures of Plenty” and “Jackhammer Blues” for a total of 28 tracks lasting 104 minutes. A 40-page booklet with liner notes by Seamons, Murlin, and Smithsonian Folkways chief archivist Jeff Place accompanies its two discs. A more in-depth look at the story of these songs and Guthrie’s partnership with the BPA is told in Greg Vandy and Daniel Person’s recently published 26 Songs in 30 Days: Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River Songs and the Planned Promised Land in the Pacific Northwest (Sasquatch Books).
A portion of the proceeds from the ‘Roll Columbia: Woody Guthrie’s 26 Northwest Songs’ album project will be used to fund educational music programming in the Pacific Northwest via the Rhapsody Project and the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission.