Northwest musician leads the charge to revive Woody Guthrie’s BPA songs
By Scott Laird
In 1941, American folk singer Woody Guthrie spent a month in the employ of the U.S. government. Woody was hired to write songs for a film to be produced by the Bonneville Power Administration to promote the advantages of public electric power.
What followed was one of the most creative periods of Woody’s prolific songwriting career and resulted in some of his most famous songs, including “Roll On Columbia,” “The Grand Coulee Dam” and “Pastures of Plenty.” Those songs are getting a new life. Woody wrote 26 songs during his brief but fruitful 30-day visit to the Pacific Northwest. He recorded about a dozen of the songs in the basement of the BPA office in Portland.
Although the originally planned film never materialized, three songs were used in the documentary film, “Columbia,” produced by the BPA in 1948. Woody later recorded and released several of the songs himself and published several more in songbooks, but much of his original material disappeared. The lost music was rediscovered in the 1980s, but no one has ever recorded all 26 songs.
Now, 75 years after Woody spent his month exploring and documenting the region, local musician Joe Seamons is collaborating with musician, folklorist and former BPA employee Bill Murlin to record all of Woody’s Columbia River songs and release them on one double album.
“It’s a very exciting project with a lot of engagement,” Joe says. Many of the songs Guthrie wrote have entered the popular consciousness, Joe says. “But too many of them remain quite obscure,” he says. Joe, who grew up in Rainier on the Columbia River, took a special interest in local Northwest folk music early in his life. He spent time with family friend Hobe Kytr, who wrote and performed songs about loggers, fishermen and living in the Northwest. Hobe became a mentor and musical influence for Joe. “That led me to wonder, ‘What else is out there that constitutes Northwest folk music?’” says Joe. “And Woody Guthrie’s songs are what people point to when you ask that question.”
In 2009, Joe was awarded a Woody Guthrie fellowship by the BMI Foundation, which made it possible for him to travel to New York City and spend two weeks exploring the Woody Guthrie archives. Since then, Joe has been interpreting Woody’s work—along with Hobe’s and other regional songs—with musical partner Ben Hunter and his band Timberbound. Joe and Ben perform an eclectic mix of bluegrass, old time, folk and blues tunes.
Bill has a special interest in seeing this project reach fruition. He is the one who found, collected and published incidentally, with Hobe’s help—all of Woody’s Columbia River songs in the “Columbia River Songbook,” when he worked for the BPA in the 1980s. “It’s time all 26 songs had a voice,” Bill says.
Woody was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, in 1912. He grew up in Oklahoma and Texas during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. He traveled the country, writing songs about the people, social events and politics of the time. The Bonneville Power Project, as it was originally called, began in 1937 to distribute electricity produced by the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams on the Columbia River. It was renamed the Bonneville Power Administration in 1940.
BPA public information officer Stephan Kahn wanted to produce a film to help sell the idea of publicly produced electric power to the local population. He believed having a folk singer involved might make the story more accessible. Stephan contacted Allen Lomax, head of the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress, who recommended his friend Woody. “The goal was to tell the story of the work being done to create jobs, irrigate land and deliver cheap, public electricity to people across the Northwest,” Joe explains.
Woody, who had recently left his job in New York City as a radio personality had moved with his wife, Mary, and three small children to California. In late March 1941, BPA sent photographer Gunther Von Fritsch to meet with Woody, who was unemployed at the time. They discussed the project and took some photos, but apparently made no promises. Excited about the prospects, Woody immediately packed up his family and headed for Portland.
In a 2007 NPR interview, Elmer Buehler, who was Woody’s driver and guide for the month, remembers Woody’s audition for Paul Raver at the BPA. “He sat there on the administrator’s desk,” Elmer recalls, “and strummed on his ‘gee-tar,’ as he always said. I don’t think he was there over half an hour, and Dr. Raver said, ‘Well, you’re hired.’” Woody got right to work and was paid $266.66 for the 26 songs he completed. “It’s very significant that one of America’s greatest folk balladeers wrote some of his best material in this very short and very productive month of his life here in Oregon,” Joe says. “If you look at his body of work and when he wrote things, this was kind of the apex of his creative life.
He had done a lot of song writing up to that point, and all the skills he had been honing as a writer and as a storyteller came together to allow him to write this fantastic batch of music.” Joe and Bill have teamed with Portland-based musician and producer Jon Neufeld and have gathered a host of other Northwest-based musicians to record the songs. Jon is best known for his work with the band Black Prairie and is also an original member of Portland bluegrass stalwarts Jackstraw.
Among the performers invited to help Joe and Bill bring all of Woody’s songs back to life are Michael Hurley, Tony Furtado, Kate Power and Steve Einhorn, John Moen of The Decemberists, Black Prairie’s Annalisa Tornfelt, and Martha Scanlon. Ben, Joe, Timberbound and Bill also will perform.
“It’s been interesting to see all the different musical connections and collaborations that are happening,” Joe says. Each artist will perform two of Woody’s songs on the album. Pacific Northwest artist Erik Sandgren will provide original artwork for the album. Recording sessions were in Portland and Seattle in March. An album release is planned for October, the 75th anniversary of Woody’s work for the BPA. Greg Vandy will publish a new book this month, “26 Songs in 30 Days: Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River Songs and the Planned Promised Land in the Pacific Northwest,” which takes readers inside the unusual partnership between one of America’s great folk artists and the federal government.
Joe says the Guthrie Foundation intends to print a new, streamlined version of “Columbia River Songbook.” It is hoped Woody’s famous Columbia River songs will find a new audience in the process. “There are some very obscure lyrics and songs included here that we’re very excited to be playing,” Joe says. “They are being performed in the recording studio for the first time ever.