Woody Guthrie moved to Portland with his family in 1941. At the time, a documentary was being made about the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River, and Guthrie was hired by the government to write songs that would encourage support from the public in regards to the new hydroelectric dams being built.
For those unfamiliar with Woody Guthrie, you might know him as the person behind “This Land is Your Land”. He had also created some of the most famous traditional and political folk songs of the early to Mid-20th century. Some of the most famous musicians to ever live—including Bob Dylan, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Jerry Garcia and Johnny Cash—regard Guthrie as being a major influence. Not bad company!
When Guthrie arrived at the Columbia River, he was taken aback by its majestic beauty. He said he “couldn’t believe it, it’s a paradise”. The river inspired him so deeply that he wrote 26 songs in just one month.
These were compiled into an album originally titled, “Columbia River Ballads”, later changed to “Columbia River Collection”.
Some of these turned out to be some of his most famous songs, such as “Roll on Columbia”, “Grand Coulee Dam” and “Pastures of Plenty”.
Guthrie and others were moved by the dam’s potential to help humans and support irrigation. Much of Washington was much drier in those days – the advent of dams and reservoirs brought water to places where there previously was none. BPA spokesperson Bill Murlin said, “If we hired Woody Guthrie today, we’d have him singing about saving salmon and conserving energy instead of using him to sell power”.
Though Guthrie was moved by the jaw-dropping nature, he was also a “man of the people”. He grew up in Depression-era poverty and had always resonated with the working class. During his time, he visited logging camps, farms, and communities, where he impacted almost everyone with his voice and lyrics.
The famous folk singer wasn’t in the region long, but his impact lasted forever. His music had such an effect on the region that, in 1987, the state of Washington named “Roll on Columbia” as it’s official state folk song.
It’s not surprising that Guthrie was so moved by the region. Many regard the Columbia River Gorge as one of the most beautiful places in the country.
Are you curious to see what Guthrie saw? Perhaps you’ll be moved to write your own folk songs! Check availability today for our Columbia River cruises, some of our most popular, and certainly some of our most beautiful.