June 22, 2016

Woody Guthrie — Grand Coulee Dam troubadour

Woody Guthrie and Henry J. Kaiser — each building a peaceful world, in their own way.

Contributed by Lincoln Cushing, Archivist and Historian

'Roll On Columbia' music and lyrics, published by Sing Out, 1991.
"Roll On Columbia" music and lyrics.

The completion of Grand Coulee Dam on the mighty Columbia River in Washington was a major accomplishment for Henry J. Kaiser. It was there that he hired Sidney Garfield, MD, to run the industrial care program, and it was also where he proved himself to be an industrialist who treated labor as a partner.

After the dam was finished in 1941, and Henry J. Kaiser had moved on to the pressing task of building ships for World War II, there was still work to be done. The Bonneville Power Administration had been created in 1937 as a federal agency to manage, sell, and promote the huge amount of electric power produced by the Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams. As part of its campaign for public support, the BPA produced two documentary films — Hydro (released 1940), and The Columbia, which began production in early 1941.

At the suggestion of Smithsonian folklorist Alan Lomax, the BPA commissioned famed folk singer Woody Guthrie to write several songs.

Film credits for 'The Columbia'
Film credits for "The Columbia"

In 1941 Woody recorded a set of 26 songs as the “Columbia River Ballads,” (later called “The Columbia River Collection”) many of which were used in the second film. World War II had stalled the project, and it wasn’t released until 1949 as The Columbia: America’s Greatest Power Stream.

Anna Canoni, Guthrie's granddaughter and a director at the Woody Guthrie Foundation, remarked: "I think that was probably the only time he was paid. And they may have just said, 'Write about this project,' and then he took that to mean whatever he wanted it to mean for himself. I think some of his most powerful work came from that time period, from those 30 days that he spent on the Columbia River."

'Grand Coulee Dam,' painting by Jack Galliano"Grand Coulee Dam," painting by Jack Galliano, 1976.Kaiser Permanente collection.

"Roll Columbia, Roll"

"Roll On, Columbia, Roll On"
(adopted as the official folk song of the State of Washington in 1987)

"The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done"

"Pastures of Plenty"

“Grand Coulee Dam”

“The Song of the Grand Coulee Dam”

Years later, the destinies of Henry J. Kaiser and Woody Guthrie would cross again. During World War II, Henry was the most prolific merchant ship builder in the world, and Guthrie served in the U.S. Merchant Marine – although never aboard a Kaiser-built vessel. (Kaiser was also an avid supporter of merchant mariners). Guthrie's first tour was aboard the Liberty ship SS William B. Travis, followed by the Liberty ship SS William Floyd. His last ship was the C3-S-A2 cargo ship SS Sea Porpoise; Guthrie was aboard when a German submarine torpedoed (but did not sink) her off the coast of Normandy while engaged in the invasion of Europe on July 5, 1944.

One of the lyrics from “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done” (listen to it here) is:

There was a man across the ocean, I guess you knew him well,

His name was Adolf Hitler, goddam his soul to hell;

We kicked him in the Panzers and put him on the run,

And that was about the biggest thing that man has ever done.

Which is followed by:

The people are building a peaceful world, and when the job is done

That'll be the biggest thing that man has ever done.

Woody Guthrie and Henry J. Kaiser — each building a peaceful world, in their own way.

Special thanks to David Keller for supplying the "Roll On Columbia" cover