Aggressive Regionalism: Commentary

9. Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Guthrie, Roll on Columbia: The Columbia River Songs

In May 1941 the Bonneville Power Administration hired the folksinger Woody Guthrie for one month as an “Information Consultant” to work on a film meant to publicize and promote the Columbia Basin Project and hydroelectric power. The film never materialized, but during his travels all around the basin Guthrie wrote some twenty-six songs commemorating the workers and the projects they were building (Gold 1998; Klein 1980:189-90, 194-98). The most famous of his lyrics is probably “Roll on Columbia, Roll On,” set to the tune of “Goodnight Irene,” which became the state song of Washington. It describes many parts of the Northwest through which the river flowed, names a number of its tributaries, and describes its transformative power as harnessed to hydroelectric dams: 

Roll on, Columbia, roll on
Roll on, Columbia, roll on
Your power is turning our darkness to dawn,
So, roll on, Columbia, roll on.

People tend to overlook the fact that in later verses Guthrie devoted substantial attention to wars against the Northwest Natives, so that now “The Injuns rest peaceful on Memaloose Isle” while the river continues to roll by.

The geographer John R. Gold (1998) identifies two main themes in the collection of songs that Guthrie produced. One was empathy for the workers on the Columbia Basin Project, many of whom were migrants from elsewhere. Guthrie himself was a wanderer who had grown up in Oklahoma, migrated around the United States, written a series of “Dust Bowl Ballads,” and sided with a number of leftist causes. He identified with workers and wanted to publicize their contributions and travails. The best of his May 1941 efforts along these lines may have been “Pastures of Plenty,” a song that ultimately acquired two endings. One ending waxed patriotic, perhaps looking forward to the coming war, which was already siphoning the resources of the Columbia Basin Project off to military purposes: “My land I’ll defend with my life if needs be;/ ‘Cause my Pastures of Plenty must always be Free!” The other verse wound down the song more wistfully, and suggested little hope that migrant workers could ever settle down and prosper: “Ev’ry state of this Union us migrants have been,/ We come with the dust and we’re gone with the wind.”

The other theme running through the Columbia Basin songs is a kind of “technological utopianism.” Like many other Americans, Guthrie was captivated by the New Deal’s promise to tame the powerful river and create an inexpensive supply of electricity. As a critic of capitalism, Guthrie celebrated the fact that Uncle Sam would build the dams and distribute the kilowatts they generated, because he expected the federal government to help check the power of corporate utilities. A dramatic increase in the supply of electricity and water for irrigation would also make life easier for the downtrodden of the West—poor farmers, urban workers, the many unemployed. In envisioning the technologies of dams, irrigation, and hydroelectricity as forces for liberation, Guthrie accepted President Franklin Roosevelt’s notion that a river without a dam was, in the singer’s words, a “wild and wasted stream.” A stanza from “Ballad of the Great Grand Coulee” summarized the sentiment that the river, rather than running untamed to the sea, needed to be harnessed for the common good:

Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of thirty-three,
For the farmer and the worker, and all of you and me,
He said roll along Columbia, you can ramble to the sea,
But river while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.

Of course, by the time the dams were completed, the generators put to work, and the power grid built, the electricity produced by the Columbia Basin Project had been commandeered, at least temporarily, by defense industries throughout the Pacific Northwest. The farmer and the worker ultimately gained considerable help from the project, but the more immediate and sizeable beneficiaries were industrial workplaces such as Hanford which produced not so much for the region but for the nation and its allies around the globe. One of the costs of the Northwest’s heightened integration into the rest of the world was that resources once conceived primarily as helping the region overcome its colonial status themselves became something that the Northwest had to share with many, many other places. Additionally, it became clear over time that a “wild” river may not really be wasted after all. As the environmental consequences of harnessing the Columbia became more apparent, the assumptions about the virtues of taming nature, expressed by Guthrie and others during the 1930s, eroded severely. By the end of the twentieth century the question for many was no longer whether to build more dams but rather whether to tear some of them down (Dick 1989; Ficken 1998).

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