Smithsonian Folkways debuts previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs on its new Roll Columbia collection 


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Woody Guthrie as a government employee might seem like the punchline to a good joke, but for one month in 1941, the fascist-bashing Okemah native found himself on the payroll for the Department of the Interior and Bonneville Power Administration (BPA).

The monumental folk singer-songwriter wrote “Roll On, Columbia, Roll On,” one of his most well-known songs, and the lyrics to 25 other tunes while touring the Pacific Northwest for a federally produced documentary about the construction of electricity-generating river dams.

Guthrie created songs for the film, but the documentary saw many production delays before its eventual 1949 release.

“They basically hired a driver whose job it was to drive him in his car all up and down the river,” Jeff Place, archivist at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in Washington, D.C., and one of the world’s leading experts on the songwriter, told Oklahoma Gazette. “He wrote about all the people he met and how cool and beautiful it was.”

Place helped collect historic materials for Folkways’ Roll Columbia: Woody Guthrie’s 26 Northwest Songs, released Jan. 27.

It is the first complete collection of the Oklahoma-born folk icon’s BPA songs, including nine that have never been recorded before.

The album features members of R.E.M, The Decemberists, Black Prairie, Michael Hurley, David Grisman and several Northwest-based folk musicians sharing their interpretations of some of Guthrie’s best writing and, in some cases, putting original music to his lyrics for the first time.

The two-disc set also includes a 44-page booklet with liner notes and photos.

The popular Columbia River Collection from 1988 featured several original Guthrie recordings but only includes the songs he got around to setting in wax or playing on film.

Place said the first-of-its-kind Roll Columbia collection showcases some of Guthrie’s best writing from the peak of his career.

“In that time period, he was really focused,” he said. “The words and lyrics that he was writing at that time in his life were just beautiful.”

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Honing in

Seattle-based folk singer-songwriter Cahalen Morrison performs on several Roll Columbia tracks.

As evidenced by the project’s long list of talented contributors, Guthrie’s tree of musical influence stretches far and wide.

“When I first got out of school and started traveling and playing,” Morrison said, “whether you know anything about him or not, you get a lot of people comparing you to Woody if you’re just rolling around, playing different songs in coffeehouses.”

Morrison, a songwriter in his own right, made sure to pick two of Guthrie’s unrecorded songs for his contribution to the record.

The challenge of creating melodies to complement Guthrie’s words and recording them for the first time was too much to pass up.

Morrison styled first choice “Lumber Is King” as a bluegrass waltz. Its lyrics indicate Guthrie’s concern about the environmental impact industry was having on the Northwest.

“But, think of the day when the land is cut o’er,” the lyrics say. “And what of King Lumber when timber’s no more?”

Morrison also picked “White Ghost Train,” a track he gave a Western swing flavor. It is one of the only BPA tunes that has almost nothing to do with the Pacific Northwest, which might be why it was never previously recorded.

Though Morrison admits he has never been as deeply into Guthrie’s work as some other folk musicians he knows, he does identify with his wandering spirit. Morrison was born in New Mexico but moved out at a young age to chase his music dreams. He traveled the country, eventually settling in Seattle, where his sister also lives.

“I feel like it was a stroke of luck for it not to be somewhere else,” he said. “I love the Northwest. It’s pretty much the opposite in weather and culture from where I grew up in New Mexico.”

Morrison said he has a tremendous amount of respect for Guthrie’s artistry.

“He really honed in on how to write about people and American people and their struggles,” Morrison said. “I feel like American music of all styles owes a lot to his work.”

Folk revival

Place was raised by two “folkie” parents during the folk boom of the 1950s and ’60s. They took him along to concerts for Peter, Paul and Mary and other similar acts. Growing up around the genre, he knew a lot of Guthrie’s songs, but versions performed or recorded by other people. Place started studying Guthrie’s work more closely after he went to college.

“Now practically everything that’s been dug up I’ve heard,” Place said.

He has worked with Smithsonian Folkways for around three decades.

He said love for Guthrie comes and goes by the year, but he has never seen more interest in the folk legend than in the past decade.

He attributes part of the popularity spike to the opening of Tulsa’s Woody Guthrie Center in 2013. It’s a public museum where unrecorded lyrics from the Woody Guthrie Archives inspired younger musicians to put music to the words.

“It seems like there’s one of these projects every year that gets acknowledged and keeps Woody on everybody’s radar,” Place said.

He said Roll Columbia should excite Guthrie fans as well as songwriting fans of all kinds.

“It was one of those things that came out of left field and we were like, ‘OK; this is a cool project. We definitely need to do that one,’” he said.

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Print headline: Float on, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings packages Roll Columbia as a first-of-its-kind collection of Woody Guthrie’s Pacific Northwest gems.

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