Dave Powell

Part Five: Roll On, Columbia (1941)

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Trying to explain his hasty decision to leave New York, Woody wrote: “I got disgusted with the whole sissified and nervous rules of censorship on all my songs and ballads and drove off down the road cross the southern states again.” He dragged Mary and the kids to Los Angeles, where pastures still hadn’t gotten any greener, and eventually wound up in Portland, Oregon. As Klein has written, it was a difficult trip up north: at one point Woody had to hock the family radio to get money so they could feed the kids. When they pulled up in Portland—in Woody’s recently purchased Pontiac, which was “inexplicably battered, with a broken window, upholstery that was stained and ripped, possessions piled high inside, and blonde children spilling out”—the people waiting to meet him couldn’t help feeling sorry for the ragtag crew.[1]

Woody had been drawn to Portland by the promise of appearing in a documentary film about work being completed by the Bonneville Power Administration. It had already become clear that the film wasn’t going to happen, but the movie’s would-be director, Gunther Von Fritsch, asked the director of the BPA if they could put Guthrie on the payroll for awhile. Woody showed up in the director’s office with a guitar, and came out an hour later with a thirty day contract as a temporary laborer that would pay him $266.66. He would be paid to write songs, and it would be the most productive thirty days of his life.[2] His output in that thirty days was tremendous: “Roll On, Columbia,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Done,” and one of his all-time classics: “Pastures of Plenty.” As his friend Alan Lomax later wrote,

“To Woody, poet of the rain-starved Dust Bowl, this mighty stream of cool, clear water, coursing through evergreen forests, verdant meadows, and high deserts was like a vision of paradise. He saw the majestic Grand Coulee Dam as the creation of the common man to harness the river for the common good—work for the jobless, power to ease household tasks, power to strengthen Uncle Sam in his fight against world fascism.”


Continue to Part Six

[1] Klein, p. 196.

[2] Klein, pp. 201-05.

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