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Created as a federal agency by Congress in August, 1937, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) was established in order to deliver and sell power from the newly dedicated Bonneville Dam. BPA began producing power over hundreds of miles of transmission lines under the U.S. Department of Interior. Today, as part of the U.S. Department of Energy since 1977, BPA markets wholesale electrical power from 31 federal hydro projects utilizing over 15,000 miles of transmission lines to federal facilities, industries and public utilities in the Columbia River system. Nearly 30 percent of the electric power used in the Northwest comes from BPA.
In efforts to win popular support for public power projects and river development, BPA produced two documentary films in the early 1940s—Hydro (released 1940), and The Columbia, which began work in the spring of 1941. To broaden the appeal of The Columbia, the film’s director, Gunther Von Fritsch and producer Steven B. Kahn sought to find a rustic character to sing folk songs and explain the benefits of providing inexpensive public power to the people of the Northwest to incorporate into the film. Determined to find a folk singer for The Columbia, Kahn contacted musician and Library of Congress folklorist and archivist, Alan Lomax for suggestions. Lomax suggested Woody Guthrie.
In early April of 1941, on Lomax’s recommendation, director Von Fritsch visited the Guthrie family in Los Angeles to explain the planned film and to listen to Woody perform and tell stories. With the next several weeks, Woody, his wife Mary and children loaded into their Pontiac and traveled to Portland to begin work on the film. When Guthrie arrived for his meeting and audition with Administrator Paul River and producer Kahn, he is best remembered by BPA employees as looking weatherworn in dirty cloths, two weeks-worth of facial hair, and chewing on an apple. According to former BPA employee Bill Murlin, “Woody sang songs and told stories for an hour, and he walked out the interview with a 30-day contract.”
Hired as a “narrator-actor” in an “emergency temporary appointment” for the sum of $3,200, Guthrie’s duties were “to narrate designated sequences of documentary motion picture…to appear in several scenes of the film and accurately depict human experiences of man engaged in construction on Bonneville Dam…to assist in writing narration, dialogue, and musical accompaniment.” While employed at BPA, Guthrie reportedly worked in a second floor office in the old headquarters building on Northeast Oregon Street in Portland, and spent time in the basement recording studio banging out the rhythm for many of his songs and melodies by slapping a metal disc on the side of a desk. Bonneville Power provided Guthrie with a car and driver to tour the Columbia River country, focusing on the dams, the beauty of the region and the people; and asked the 28 year-old folk singer to write a song a day to promote public power. Guthrie later wrote:
“I saw the Columbia River…from just every cliff, mountain, tree, and post from which it could be seen. I made up 26 songs about the dam and about the men, and these songs were recorded by the Department of the Interior, Bonneville Power Administration out in Portland. The records were played all sorts and sizes of meetings where people bought bonds to bring the power lines over the fields and hills to their little places.”
Guthrie never commercially recorded his most notable Northwest-related song, “Roll on Columbia,” which became the presidential campaign song of Henry Wallace’s 1948 Progressive Party ticket. Delayed by World War II, The Columbia was eventually released in 1949 and contained four of Guthrie’s songs, “Roll, Columbia, Roll,” “The Grand Coulee Dam,” “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done,” and “Pastures of Plenty.” Guthrie was given $266.66 for his efforts; when his contract with BPA expired, he moved his family to Pampa, Texas.
Horne, V. (1988, January 5). Woody: A song a day in Columbia country. Olympian, 14-15.
Johnson, D. (1969, December 14). Arlo Guthrie is big at Alice’s, But his dad dug the Pacific Northwest. Seattle Times, 6-7.
Scigliano, E. (1984, June 27-July 3). Travels with Woody. Weekly, 26-32.
“Woody Guthrie’s Biography.” http://www.woodyguthrie.org/archives/index.htm. Woody Guthrie Archives, 2011. Web. 11 July 2011.
Woody Guthrie Archives. http://www.woodyguthrie.org/archives/index.htm
Woody Guthrie and the Archive of American Folk Song. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/wwghtml/