NW Musicians Roll Columbia; play Woody Guthrie’s Portland Songs
Written by Randy Black on January 18, 2017
Viking Twang Show 115, January 18, 2017
Good morning, welcome to Viking Twang Episode 115. My name’s Randy Black; hope you’ve survived the ice and snow and that life getting back to normal for you.
I have a special treat for you this week. In 1941, the Bonneville Power Administration hired Woody Guthrie to come to Portland to write songs promoting the Columbia River dams. He wrote 26 songs in 30 days living with his family in an apartment in Lents, making about $10 a song.
Last year, a group of Northwest musicians recorded those songs for a new album called Woody Guthrie’s Roll Columbia. It’s produced by Bill Murlin, a BPA historian who brought the songs to light, along with Jon Neufeld and Joe Seamons.
We’re going to take up most of the show playing those songs, which will be released by Smithsonian Folkways later in the month. We’ll close the show with a few songs from the album Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg and Wilco, in which they put to music a group of lyrics from Guthrie’s notebooks.
1 – Turkey Red; W.C. Beck & the Portland Country Underground.
2 – Columbia’s Waters; Caitlin Belem Romtvedt, David Romtvedt, and Joe Seamons. The father-daughter team of Wyoming’s David and Caitlin Belem Romtvedt start off with a song, reminiscent of the Muleskinner Blues.
3 –Pastures of Plenty; Michael Hurley and Jon Neufeld. One of Guthrie’s iconic songs was written here in Oregon. Sung by Michael Hurley, who lives in the Columbia River town of Brownsmead, and Jackstraw’s Jon Neufeld.
4 – Lumber Is King; Cahalen Morrison. This is an unrecorded song where Guthrie worried about the way the Columbia was being polluted. He never wrote down a melody, so Pete Seeger completed the song in 1967. This is Seattle’s Cahalen Morrison.
5 – Guys on the Grand Coolee Dam; Bill Murlin and Fine Company. Another unrecorded song that Seeger put to music; sung by the Seattle-based trio Fine Company.
6 – Eleckatricity and All; Annalisa Tornfelt and the Tornfelt Sisters. Rural electrification was a major purpose of the dams, of course, and what woman wouldn’t want a man who could provide it? Annalisa is a Portland resident and member of Black Prairie, as well as other projects.
7 – It Takes a Married Man to Sing a Worried Song; Pharis & Jason Romero. A version of the Carter Family’s Worried Man Blues that’s interesting considering that when Guthrie left Portland at the end of the contract, his wife Mary and three children remained here, ending their marriage. Pharis and Jason are a married couple from British Columbia.
8 – Out Past The End of the Line; Timberbound. A song meant to depict life beyond the end of the power lines. Timberbound is album producer Joe Seamons on guitar and banjo. with Kate Seagren on vocals, Jenny Estrin on fiddle, and Gavin Duffy on guitar.
9 – Ramblin’ Blues (Portland Town); Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons. Woody studied under Leadbelly and often used old blues melodies for his songs. This is an adaption of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s One Dime Blues.
10 – Ballad of the Great Grand Coulee (The Grand Coulee Dam); Darrin Craig & Jon Neufeld. A beautiful vision of the benefits the Grand Coulee would bring to the Northwest, though apparently he didn’t know that it would submerge Celilo Falls. Darren and Jon are members of Portland’s longtime bluegrass band, Jackstraw.
11- New Found Land; John Moen, Chris Funk, and Jon Neufeld. It appears Guthrie wrote this song in Portland, but kept it rather than giving it to the BPA. Moen and Funk are members of The Decemberists.
12 – Roll On, Columbia, Roll On – Steve Einhorn and Kate Power. This is the most famous and iconic of the Portland songs; the state folk song of Washington, but Guthrie never released it, recording only on an acetate for the BPA. You hear verses that are not normally recorded. Einhorn and Power are the married couple who founded Portland’s Artichoke Music.
Guthrie left behind notebooks full of lyrics that he never recorded or put to music. His daughter, Nora, asked Billy Bragg to put some of them to music, and the result is 1998’s Mermaid Avenue, which Bragg made with Wilco. Since then, he’s’ done two follow-ups; The Klezmatics and Del McCoury have also put out similar albums.
13 – Walt Whitman’s Niece
14 – California Stars
15 – Hoodoo Voodoo
16 – Ingrid Bergman
17 – Another Man’s Done Gone
18 – Daybreak in Vegas; The Countrypolitans.