Roll On Columbia, Roll On
From the desk of Pat Ford, SOS executive director
Woody Guthrie is 100 years old this Saturday, July 14. It’s hard to think of any dead man more alive. Music has a way of cutting the corner on mortality.
What do you hear in his songs? I hear our land. I have a tangled bank of love, gratitude, unease, anger, respect, heartbreak, awe, and longing when I think, as I have for 50 years now, about the places and times of these United States. His songs contain all this tangle and then some, but when he sings about our land, however he sings about it, he somehow makes it not a tangle but just the many criss-crossing paths we must travel to better days.
That’s how I hear his Columbia River songs. Many of them celebrate dams – on their surface. Really, they celebrate people, at a time when big dams built by the government offered progress and hope to a lot of hard-pressed, hard-up Americans. That’s why the songs last – they’re about the promise and search for better days:
Roll on Columbia roll on
Roll on Columbia roll on
Your power is turning our darkness to dawn
So roll on Columbia roll on
It was 1941, war closing in. He was 28 and needed a job. The four-year-old Bonneville Power Administration paid him a couple hundred dollars to wander the Northwest and write songs to celebrate Grand Coulee Dam and the big thing government and people were doing together in the Northwest. He put his humanity in them all and his genius in some. People will sing "Roll on Columbia" long after the Columbia’s dams are gone.
Can you imagine Bonneville Power hiring Woody Guthrie today? The security check alone would make a talking blues and video. Yet BPA is using "Roll On Columbia" right now to celebrate itself and its dams, on the occasion of its 75th anniversary. I understand why – it’s a great song. But it’s a dangerous act for the status quo force BPA has become. Woody Guthrie’s songs, spirit, and life are subversive of status quos.
What would Woody Guthrie think of BPA and its dams today? I can’t anachronize him into an “environmentalist” – a word he would surely lampoon, stretching it out in his drawl to rhyme with – well, I’ll let you sort the options. But as a musical warrior for the hard-pressed, I think he’d see BPA and its constellation of forces about as in his day he saw those who put up no trespassing signs on our land or robbed us with a fountain pen.
"Roll on Columbia" belongs to people, so some people can absolutely sing it to celebrate dams. More people will sing it to celebrate the river and its life, not dams; not big agencies but every act of we the people to make better days for ourselves and our earth. The spirit of the man and the times that produced the song has kept moving since 1941. The power of our rivers to help us turn darkness to dawn is different now. I think we who see a better future in starting to remove some dams can claim that spirit as long as building better days for people is in our compass.
So far I’ve missed all the Woody 100th celebratory performances that began early this year. This Sunday I’ll miss the one I regret most, a concert in New York City with Arlo and the Guthrie family. What if they sing "Roll On Columbia"? To be there and hear it – well, how good that would be.
Woody Guthrie stole (re-used) melodies and song skeletons all the time. 15 or 20 years ago David James Duncan spoke to a group of fly fishers on a sternwheeler moored in the Columbia. He stole "Roll On Columbia" for his own re-make: a bit drunk with fishing pals in a motel in The Dalles, Woody comes to him in a dream:
I had just drifted off when my spirit awoke
To the sound of a git-tar an' a sad voice that spoke
In a sweet Okie twang tailor-made to sing folk,
While outside the Columbia rolled on.
"Dave," the voice said, "this isn't no joke.
I been shanghaied to Limbo for a song I once wrote.
The BPA paid for it. Shit. I was broke.
It's called 'Roll On, Columbia, Roll On.'
"The song brags up the river an' that part deserves fame.
It's the braggin' 'bout factories an' dams that was lame.
Can you take down dictation so I can salvage my name?"
I said, "You betcha, Woody. Go on."
It goes on for many verses. Here’s the end:
"Rain on Mountain makes River---that's The Law on this Earth.
The wild waters’ll keep comin' till that law is reversed,
An' dams can be unbuilt to show folks the worth
Of a land where free rivers flow on.
"The sunlight, the winds, the great waters shall last.
It's Industrial Madness that one day shall pass.
Sweet Columbia's just waitin' for the day we all ask
Where our beautiful river has gone.
Sing it back!
“Roll on, Columbia, roll on.
Roll on, Columbia, roll on.
Once the land builds a river it can never be gone,
So roll on, Columbia, roll on.”
I have a dream of Woody and Arlo and David and friends playing variations for an hour or so, and I’m in the audience but so are Patty Murray and Ron Wyden and Mike Crapo. I have perhaps a more realistic dream that due to too much work may or may not come true: we get up a contest for new versions of "Roll on Columbia", and a people’s choir – fishermen, mothers, children – sing the best five or six at BPA’s 75th Anniversary event September 15 at Cascade Locks. Woody might just be there for that.