Guthrie, Woody (1912-1967): His Northwest Days

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 4/23/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3174
Woody Guthrie was a Dust Bowl refugee from Oklahoma. A wandering troubadour. He was also a natural-born populist whose guitar was bravely emblazoned with the in-your-face slogan: "This Machine Kills Fascists." Though blacklisted during the McCarthy Era, and dogged by the FBI, today the late Woody Guthrie is universally acknowledged as America’s Okie Poet Laureate whose classic tunes like "This Land Was Your Land," "Hard Travelin’," and "Oklahoma Hills" have become staples in the folk music canon. More precisely, the songs are national treasures. Woody Guthrie loved the Pacific Northwest, sang and played his guitar on Seattle streets, and wrote the song designated in 1987 as the Washington State Folk Song -- "Roll On Columbia, Roll On."

This Land Was His Land

The Pacific Northwest is one of my favorite spots in this world, and I’m one walker that’s stood way up and looked way down acrost plenty of pretty sights in all their veiled and nakedest seasons (Murlin).

--Woody Guthrie

Born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma, he learned harmonica as a child and by age 16 began his life as an itinerant musician. By the early 1940s, he was associated with other folkies of the era including Cisco Houston, Leadbelly, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, and co-founded the Almanac Singers with Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes, and Millard Lampell. Along the way Guthrie also married and raised a family including son Arlo who became a singer/songwriter in his own right. Guthrie’s musical progeny also included: Bob Dylan, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and Country Joe McDonald. Musically prolific, he wrote or adapted more than 1000 songs before succumbing to Huntington’s disease. Hospitalized in 1952, Guthrie finally passed away in New York on October 3, 1967.

Deservedly, Guthrie has been the subject of numerous biographies, several movies and tribute albums, and a major exhibit. The Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives is now established as the repository of his legacy.

Throughout the Depression Era of the 1930s, Guthrie scrabbled to make a living, rambling back and forth across the country playing migrant work camps, railroad yards, lumber camps, hobo jungles, union halls, and street corners -- it remains accepted lore among Seattle’s "buskers" (street musicians) that Guthrie’s favorite performance spot in town was at 3rd Avenue and Pike Street.

Plenty of Trouble

Hard travelin’ was certainly the name of the game and along the way Guthrie’s keen sense of the socio-economic inequities in the American system was sharpened. The times were desperate and dangerous and Guthrie and his road buddies shared a number of harrowing experiences and met up with plenty of trouble. One low-point must have been his arrest on charges of vagrancy in Portland, Oregon, a town he was never too fond of:

"Portland is a place where rich ones run away to settle down and grow flowers and shrubbery to hide them from the massacres they’ve caused. Portland is the rose garden town where the red, brown, blackshirt cops ride up and down to show you their finest horses and saddles and gunmetal. Mentally Portland is the deadest spot you ever walked through. She’s a good 30 years behind Seattle" (Library of Congress LP).

From Oregon Guthrie rambled on down, once again, through California which is where, back in 1937, he’d landed his own daily radio show in Los Angeles. Then in early 1940 he cut his first recordings for the Library of Congress and in April he was signed and recorded by a major label, RCA Records, which resulted in the debut of his first commercial releases.

A year later, on May 13, 1941, he was commissioned by the U.S. government to pen a series of songs in support of the Bonneville Power Administration’s new hydro-electric projects in the Pacific Northwest region. As Guthrie recalled:

"Way back in… ’41, I made a fast walking trip up and down the basin of the Columbia River and its tributaries, the Snake, the Hood, Willamette, Yakima and the Klickitat, making up little songs about what I’d seen. I made up 26 songs about the Bonneville Dam, Grand Coulee Dam and the thunderous foamy waters of the rapids and cascades, the wild and windward watersprays from the high Sheliloh falls, and the folks living in the little shack house just about a mile from the end of the line" (Murlin).

Once penned, Guthrie set about getting the songs recorded in Portland:

"Rode into town this morning with a couple of old friends that work for the Bonneville Power Administration. They took me down in the cellar and showed me their new recording equipment of which they are very proud" (Library of Congress LP).

About the resultant recordings, Guthrie noted, "The records were played at all sorts and sizes of meetings where people bought bonds to bring the power lines in over the fields and hills to their own little places" (Library of Congress LP).

Some of the new songs that were cut onto "instant" acetate discs in Portland included classics like: "Roll On Columbia, Roll On," "Washington Talkin’ Blues," "Way Up In That Northwest," "Portland Town," "Talkin’ Columbia Blues," "Columbia Waters," and "The Grand Coulee Dam." Later Guthrie would record at least one additional song he’d written during his Northwest days: "Hit That Oregon Trail This Coming Fall." Of the whole batch he once said:

"When a song or a ballad mentions the name of a river, a town, a spot, a fight, or the sound of somebody’s name that you know and are familiar with, there is a sort of quiet pride comes up through your blood. …These Pacific Northwest songs and ballads have all got these personal feelings for me because I was there on these very spots and very grounds before …" (Murlin).

Acres of Clams

One of the fellow folkies that often accompanied Guthrie in his travels was banjoist Pete Seeger who recalls a trip to Seattle:

"We drove up the northern California coast. I saw the redwoods for the first time. We continued to push north, into Portland, Oregon, and finally to Seattle, Washington. While in Seattle …we stayed with Ivar Haglund and taught Ivar the old song "Acres of Clams…" (Allen).

The song (and its association with Seattle balladeer and restaurateur Ivar Haglund) that Seeger mentions has an interesting background -- one that has led some historians to be skeptical about the complete accuracy of the anecdote. The song itself was actually an old (ca. 1877) Northwest folk song, originally titled "The Old Settler." And Haglund, a known collector of folk songs and a student of Northwest history, had been performing locally with his guitar since the early-1930s. Thus it is difficult to imagine that he wouldn’t have already known of the tune.

Regardless of who introduced whom to the piece, Haglund was so fond of the tune that he sang it on his local radio show throughout the 1940s, and ultimately adopted its final lyrical line "…I think of my pleasant condition / surrounded by acres of clams…" as the marketing hook for his popular waterfront restaurant, Ivar’s Acres of Clams.

Hootenanny

Meanwhile, Ivar’s houseguests made a discovery. As Seeger recalled:

"…it was in Seattle that Woody and I came across the term "hootenanny." We liked the sound of the word. I inquired as to its origins and was told ‘hootenanny’ came from Indiana, that it was an old country word for ‘party.’ …Woody and I took the word ‘hootenanny’ back to New York with us and used it for our rent parties" (Allen).

Typical of Guthrie and Seeger and their lifelong commitment to the struggles of working men and women is the fact that their first stop on the long drive back to New York was in the rough-and-tumble town of Butte, Montana, where they sang and played songs in support of striking miners.

Of the most beloved of Guthrie’s Northwest songs, "Roll On Columbia, Roll On" (designated in 1987 as Washington’s official state folk song) the songwriter once noted:

"This song was wrote up by an Oakie passing through your country, and I’m pretty certain that everybody just first coming into this country has got some such similar song in his or her head, but times is such that they just can’t sing it out loud so you might not hear it" (Murlin).

Sources: Woody Guthrie, Bound For Glory, (New York: Dutton, 1968); Woody Guthrie, Library of Congress Recordings, (2-LP) Elektra Records EKL-271/272, 1964; Tom Sparks, "Seattle’s Wandering Minstrels," Monolith, Seattle, 1976; Linda Allen, Washington Songs and Lore, (Spokane: Melior Publications, 1989); Woody Guthrie, Roll On Columbia: The Columbia River Collection ed. by Bill Murlin, (Bethlehem, PA: Sing Out Publications, 1991); Hard Travelin’: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie Ed. By Robert Santelli and Emily Davidson, (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England/Wesleyan University Press, 1999); Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives (http://www.woodyguthrie.org).

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