Greg Vandy’s new book recounts Woody Guthrie’s work in the Northwest.
In the 1930s and ’40s, Woody Guthrie was the emblem of the American dispossessed, the hard-travelling troubadour who sang of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and the migrant-worker camps of California, a source of empathy and dignity for thousands beset by the Great Depression. During that time, FDR’s New Deal aimed to put people to work on major public projects—including the federally funded Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams in Oregon and Washington, respectively. In 1941, Guthrie was hired by the Portland-based Bonneville Power Authority to spend a month in the Northwest and give voice to the rationale behind the Columbia River dams: The cheap, publicly owned electricity and irrigation they’d provide would transform the Columbia Basin into a “planned promised land.” In turn, songs like “Roll On, Columbia” and “Pastures of Plenty” became some of Guthrie’s most famous.
Next month, Sasquatch Books releases 26 Songs In 30 Days: Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River Songs & The Planned Promised Land In The Pacific Northwest, co-written by Dan Person and Greg Vandy, host of KEXP’s The Roadhouse. Vandy spoke to us about Guthrie’s enduring legacy and the ongoing relevance of public power.
Your book suggests that Woody understood the toll the dams would take on the environment and the Native people of the area and got behind them anyway.
Woody was into it because it was his people. The dams would create opportunity for migrants—a direct connection to the Dust Bowl, where he came from. Think about it: People in rural areas, including Eastern Washington and Oregon, didn’t have electricity in 1930. What’s more important, people having electricity or a negative environmental effect? There’s no right or wrong answer, but FDR used the energy question to reshape American society, to bring people into the modern world. It’s easy to look back and see what was wrong about the dam, but not so much in the context of the Depression.
I know about this stuff from history class but the book puts it in the context of music and pop culture.
This is a book by a music guy who does a radio show that’s absolutely within a popular context. But I recognize what an extraordinary point in American history it was: when the government hired a folk singer to promote their agenda.
Why is Woody Guthrie such an enduring figure?
Because he was the voice of authenticity. He’d seen the country and could represent the common person. During this time of economic calamity, the government wisely invested in the cultural wealth of the country to restore faith to the nation. There was an organic movement in the arts, telling the story of what America really was through the lens of the people. The Grapes of Wrath, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Carl Sandburg’s book-length poem The People, Yes—all of them suggested the common man was the hero of this new American era, and only by investing in people could we become great again. When Woody goes to play New York in 1940, it’s like he was blown off the pages of The Grapes of Wrath.
The artistic community finally had a reason to be patriotic. They believed in this reshaping of America. Because of their iconic work, we’re proud to be Americans. It was all generated with a political agenda, but when you remove the politics, 75 years later, it’s just great Americana. The idea of social democracy today stands as a hope to returning to what’s important, which is investment in people.
You use the term “social democracy” to describe describe these WPA programs, which has become relevant again with Bernie Sanders’ brand of democratic socialism.
We are again considering ideas of social democracy. Since the ’80s, the big government that was generated with the New Deal has been systematically torn down. When Bernie Sanders talks about democratic socialism, it’s not a new idea.
“Pastures of Plenty” has layers of meaning, this idea of the planned promised land, and you believe what he’s saying.
“Pastures of Plenty” is one of the most popular folk songs of all time. It’s one of Woody’s best songs and it’s a song about migrant workers, but at the end it talks about how the pastures of plenty is the Columbia Basin because of irrigation from the Columbia River. This government project was aiming to create these pastures of plenty as an answer to the Depression. And those pastures happen to be in our backyard.
26 Songs in 30 Days comes out on April 12.
Illustration by Kathryn Rathke.