In 1941, Woody Guthrie packed his family into a car, drove to Portland from California, and went to work for the federal government.
At the time, Guthrie wasn't yet a towering icon of American music, just an out-of-work songwriter struggling to make ends meet in the years just after the Great Depression. He'd been hired by the Bonneville Power Administration to pen tunes promoting the new hydroelectric dams going up along the Columbia River. In one month, he produced 26 songs, rhapsodizing the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest and celebrating the people the dams were meant to serve in ways that extended far beyond his assignment. Seventeen of those songs—such as "Roll On, Columbia, Roll On" and "Pastures of Plenty"—became sanctified entries in the classic folk songbook, while the remaining nine went unrecorded, languishing in his archives for decades after his death in 1967.
Seventy-five years later, Portland-born songwriter Joe Seamons is plugging the holes in Northwest folk's grandest legacy. Working with Bill Murlin, who first published Guthrie's complete Columbia River songbook in the '80s, Seamons assembled an all-star cast of regional musicians—including Peter Buck, Michael Hurley and members of the Decemberists—to record the nine missing songs, and bring together the full BPA collection on record for the first time.
The album, Roll Columbia, will be released next year, but Seamons, along with a dozen collaborators, are previewing the project this week at the Old Church. Willamette Week spoke to Seamons about what exactly Guthrie left on the cutting-room floor, his lingering connections to Portland, and why these songs still matter in 2016.
WW: What was it like for you, as a songwriter with an interest in American folk music, to discover that an icon like Woody Guthrie had written all these songs about your home region?
Joe Seamons: It was really powerful. It's like what Bob Dylan talks about. When you look at the breadth and depth of Woody Guthrie's writing, you just feel small. Not small in the sense that you feel insignificant, but it's like looking at the ocean. You're looking at something that is vast beyond your conception. So that was what really hit me. It's incredible that this happened, that the government hired a guy who was affiliated so strongly with communism to come and work for what was like a socialist and capitalist enterprise at the same time. It's so reflective of how complex and crazy America is that this happened at all.
I was trying to think of what a modern analogue would be. Jeff Tweedy writing songs for PGE or something?
Part of it's difficult because there's no real figure like Guthrie. What's the closest thing? Neil Young? No, he's too popular. Guthrie wasn't a well-known figure in his time. He only started to get famous toward the very end of his life. The equivalent would be, like, Obama gets swept into office. He allocates even more money for green energy. The solar people decide what they need to do is hire a songwriter and make a documentary film, and the songwriter writes doesn't just write about solar energy but ends up tapping into the real spirit and feel of the time. There is no real good modern analogue because times were just different then. And it wouldn't be a documentary film, it'd be, like, a 90-second viral video.
Did Guthrie enter into this project somewhat begrudgingly?
It seems like, from the private letters he wrote to other people, that he was generally on board with the mission. He didn't see any better way than the government trying to create jobs to continue dragging the country out of the Depression. He seemed to really believe in the mission, but he was conflicted when he saw big government contractors dumping chemical waste into the Columbia River. He saw that. Not necessarily while he was working with the BPA, but in September, a few months later, he wrote home about it. So I really think he was onboard with it. And though he did desperately need the money, money was never a motivating factor for him. He says he was able to earn enough money for his wife and children to live on a level resembling humans. [Laughs] That's what he says in the letters. He's relieved he's providing for his family, but he really doesn't care about the money. He literally says, in one of the other letters, "I'm broke again, but it feels natural to be broke, don't it?" That's how he felt best. And also, he came up to do the job without even having a firm job offer in hand. He just got excited about it, so he put his wife and kids in the car and drove from Columbia, Calif., to the BPA headquarters in Portland.
I recall reading that he ended up staying in an apartment in Lents.
Yeah, in Lents. It's still there.
Are there other Portland landmarks that are part of the lore of Woody Guthrie's time here?
The BPA offices have been fairly transformed. That's the only other place we really know he went. But there's a guy named Mark Loring, and his father, Michael Loring, was a fellow traveler living in the Northwest, a professional singer and one of Guthrie's buddies. [Guthrie's] marriage was falling apart at the time he was in Portland, and he would stay with the Loring family sometimes, either during or after his contract with BPA ended. Years later, in '48, he was trying to remember the lyrics to "Roll On, Columbia." He had forgotten them, and Sing Out! magazine wanted to publish them. So he writes to the Loring family and says, "Could you send me the verses to this song? I know you sing it, and I don't remember them." Michael Loring replies, "Here's the verses, and I've added this one I like to sing because I think it completes the song." It's the verse about Tom Jefferson: "Tom Jefferson's vision will not let him rest." That is not a Guthrie verse, that's a Michael Loring verse. To thank the Loring family, Guthrie replies with a little songbook, and he mails it to the Loring family. It's this incredible document, about 10 pages long, and it has a couple different versions of the Columbia River songs and a letter painted on the back that says, "Thanks to the whole Loring family." Mark still has that, and remembers the FBI coming to his family's house during the Red Scare and trying to interrogate them about their father's communist affiliations.
Why were the nine songs you unearthed for this project not recorded initially?
In some cases, it's because they're silly. There's a famous Carter Family song—"It takes a worried man to sing a worried song"—and all Guthrie did was change the first "worried" to "married." So that's not like a revelatory composition that needs to be immortalized. It's just a funny thing, like, "I wonder why he turned that into the Bonneville Power Administration?" So there's some cases like that. It's a little bit trivial, a silly thing he knocked off in the afternoon, because he was getting pressure from the BPA to produce every day. There's an account of the guy who was overseeing him in the information department treating him like a scriptwriter in Hollywood and making sure he would churn out verses every day.
Other manuscripts seem like maybe he'd already written a bunch and he tacked on some verses about the Columbia River. Like "The Biggest Thing Man Has Ever Done," which is "I Was Born 10,000 Years Ago," an old, classic folk song that goes through and describes all these things you've been at. So he produces a version of that but then he adds in a couple verses about the Columbia River in the context of the Tower of Babylon and the Civil War. He mentions all these epic things man has done, and he includes the Grand Coulee Dam as one of those things. So, they're fun, and in some cases even fairly clever given the constraints he was working under, but they've just been sitting in a songbook and no one has ever bothered to dust them off and record them.
Is there anything among those songs that is actually revelatory?
To me, it's mostly the one called "Lumber Is King." That's the one that has Guthrie looking forward and going, "What do we do when all these big trees we're cutting down are gone? What then?" That's the one that stands out to me.
How did you go about recording these songs and interpreting how they were meant to sound?
That was an interesting part of the challenge, because one way to go about it would have been to have a lot of consistency and say, "This is our core sound, and we're going to have simple guitar-playing and really direct declamation of lyrics, and stick to Guthrie's style." But we thought, this was never designed to be an album. This is Guthrie going, "Here's everything I've produced for this project. Good luck, I'm moving on." So we took the tact of going, we're not going to bring in a bunch of drums and bass on this stuff, we'll have it be fairly acoustic, but we're making an album here, and it's 26 songs long. To keep it interesting, let's bring in a lot of voices but keep the ensemble small. So at most we have maybe four musicians playing at any time, and there'd be fiddle, guitar, banjo, bass. It's generally solo and duo performances by and large. So it's unity in texture and the diversity of voices, women and men's voices from across the Northwest. Our approach was, let's take artists we feel like tap into this feel we have for this music and can help us articulate a present-day perspective on this historic material.
It's been 75 years since Guthrie undertook this project. Why is it important for people to hear these songs in 2016?
It's always productive to reflect on the past, especially in an era where everything is coming at us in a tornado of information. You can literally argue this work Guthrie was contributing to changed the course of history. It started out being, "We need to convince people to establish these public utility districts, and we need the support for rural electricity." But as Guthrie is writing the songs, it's becoming clear to him that what the power is going to be used for—in the short term, at least—is to fight and win the Second World War. "Build the Flying Fortresses to fight for Uncle Sam," those are Guthrie's words. So the significance of them today is understanding the sweep of history and understanding that at one time, the government was involved in projects that, even if they did get swept up into things you can question, like violent involvement in a giant world war, there was a noble enough intention that it got someone as morally astute as Woody Guthrie involved. To me, it's a hopeful story, like, "The government did something right!"
Are there lessons to be learned for Portland in particular?
Well, the thing that's bearing down on Portland right now is the same thing as up here in Seattle, and it's gentrification. It's the transformation of who lives where and what property is valued at and who is able to live in a given neighborhood. I see that as one of the major challenges in Portland right now. I go back to the song I keep mentioning, "Lumber Is King," with Guthrie looking ahead and going, "We think this is good now, but are we looking ahead? Are we just looking in front of our faces at what is good for us in the short term or are we being smart about this in the long-term and acting in a way and creating policies and deciding to act as a community in a way that's smart for all of us in the long term?" That's the clear message that comes through to me when I look at these songs as a whole. And I wonder, and I struggle with, whether or not we're making the right choices in the Northwest now, for working people who want to live here and have that opportunity. It's something that was there when Woody wrote these songs, and something that's challenging us today. How does everyone get a fair shake? We're not looking out for the little guy enough. It's still happening. Making the dams was one effort to balance it. Is government the way to do it? I think it's the only mechanism we have to ensure some sort of balance. So that's the connection I see for Portland.
SEE IT: Woody Guthrie's Northwest Songs Tribute Concert is at the Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave., on Saturday, Oct. 22. 2 and 8 pm. $25. All ages.