woody guthrie and the bonneville dam

woody-guthrie-bonneville There was a time when dams were not expensive wasteful abominations against nature. No, dams used to be the solar and wind power of their day. It was an elegant idea: build what is essentially a concrete wall. Use the water running through it to power your city. Use the water trapped behind it to irrigate your land. There’s no harmful waste leftover, no smokestacks billowing noxious fumes. It’s a pretty ecologically sound idea.

It was only by the 1950’s problems arose due to over-damming. Mighty rivers such as the Colorado have become sluggish because too many dams were built along it. But in 1933, when the Bonneville Dam began construction on the Columbia River, dams were a viable source of power and water, and even liberal Woody Guthrie could find no fault with them.

In the spring of 1941, Woody Guthrie was hired by the Bonneville Power Administration to write some songs. The BPA was building the dam east of Portland, Oregon and they wanted some good press for the event. Today they may have hired someone like Paris Hilton or Miley Cyrus to write a few songs. Back then, the only person coming close to that level of fame was Woody Guthrie.

The BPA hired Woody Guthrie for thirty days. In that time, he wrote twenty-six songs, with titles like Roll On Columbia, Roll, Columbia, Roll, Columbia’s Waters, The Biggest Thing That a Man Has Ever Done, and Oregon Trail. None were huge radio hits, but Guthrie got paid $10 per song and that was fine.

The songs, I have to say, are pretty good. I’d never heard this much Guthrie – my previous experience was with Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue. That was a collection of Guthrie lyrics newly put to music, but the Bonneville Dam album was pure Guthrie: lyrics, music, singin’ and playin’. Some people complain that folk music is too homogeneous; one song sounds just like the next. I was surprised at the variations, both in his lyrics and his voice. True, the tunes were often recycled folk standards, but I’m kind of a sucker for that old timey music anyway.

I also felt the thrill of catching Guthrie’s references. Usually, folk songs take place in the South, or maybe in England (if you like Donovan), or the Midwest. I’ve never heard too many songs that take place in the Southwest or the Pacific Northwest. It’s a different listening experience when you are familiar with the place names and can picture them in your mind.

Today the Bonneville Dam still stands, a testament to Guthrie’s songwriting and the mad skillz of the US Army Corps of Engineers. Nearby there is a salmon run made of concrete steps; the fish can still swim upstream to their breeding grounds.

I am conflicted about the usefulness of dams. On the one hand, they are the original green power. They generate electricity and create reservoirs so farmers can grow crops. But, like so many good ideas, dams were overused and have become a detriment to the rivers they utilize. Maybe the answer is to take some of these dams down. (For the record, the Glen Canyon Dam would be my first suggestion.) Dams can still be part of our effort to stop the reliance on petroleum. With what we know now about river ecology and average yearly rainfall, we can better maintain the rivers and still keep the dams that keep western America truckin’.

A few resources:
Woody Guthrie Timeline.
A nice summary of the time Woody Guthrie spent near the Columbia River.
The Bonneville Dam.


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