Sunday, July 09, 2017

How Times Change

Recently, I was listening to some Woody Guthrie songs sung by Cisco Houston, and thinking about how our view of taming nature has changed over time. I'm not going to comment about the details: the point seems obvious in these, the final verses from "Grand Coulee Dam," which Guthrie wrote in 1941:

At Bonneville on the river
there's a green and beautiful sight,
See the Bonneville Dam a-rising
in the sun so clear and white,
While the leaping salmon play along 
the ladder and the rocks,
There's a steamboat load of gasoline
a-whistling in the locks.

Uncle Sam took up the challenge
in the year of 'thirty-three,
For the farmer and the factory
and for all of you and me,
He said, "Roll along, Columbia,
you can ramble to the sea,
But river, while you're rolling,
you can do a little work for me."

Now in Oregon and Washington
you can hear the factories hum,
Making chrome and making manganese
and light aluminum,
When you see that flying fortress
wing her way across the land,
Spawned upon the King Columbia
by the big Grand Coulee Dam.

A 1940s post card of the Bonneville Dam. (For a complete summary
of the history of the dam, see this website: source)
Guthrie wrote quite a few songs about the Coulee Dam project -- hired and paid by the Bonneville Power Administration, builder of the dam. Last year for the seventy-fifth anniversary of these songs, the BPA sponsored a celebration.

From the BPA website:
"During his month of employment in the spring of 1941, Guthrie traveled across Oregon and Washington and visited towns, farms, Native American locales and the construction site of Grand Coulee Dam in northeast Washington. Inspired by the people he met and his own observations and experiences, Guthrie wrote a collection of songs about the Columbia River and the benefits new federal hydroelectric dams would bring to the people of the Northwest." 
Here are verses from "Roll on, Columbia," another of the 26 songs which he wrote for them:

At Bonneville now there are ships in the locks
The waters have risen and cleared all the rocks
Shiploads of plenty will steam past the docks
So roll on, Columbia, roll on.

And on up the river is Grand Coulee Dam
The mightiest thing ever built by a man
To run the great factories and water the land
So roll on, Columbia, roll on.

These mighty men labored by day and by night
Matching their strength 'gainst the river's wild flight
Through rapids and falls, they won the hard fight
So roll on, Columbia, roll on.

Another postcard view of the dam, also from the 1940s.
An NPR story about Guthrie's Columbia River songs summarizes the point of view during the time he wrote them: "Guthrie's songs echoed this optimistic period in the West. Few were thinking of the salmon the dams would sacrifice. Instead, it was all about harnessing nature's power to help people."

While the song lyrics praised the technology of man harnessing the river, Guthrie himself was an embarrassment to the government agency that had hired him. During the anti-communist witch hunts of post-World-War-II era, the BPA destroyed much of the evidence that they had hired Guthrie and paid him $266.66 for his 30 days of work -- including a documentary film with Guthrie singing his songs. However, in the 1980s, a BPA employee retrieved some of the material, described in another post on their website here.

1 comment:

Jeanie said...

Very interesting. I don't know nearly what I should about Woody Guthrie other than that we rarely hear ALL the verses of "This Land is Your Land." Thanks for a really interesting post!