Singing about a land where free rivers flow on

  • Pat Ford


Woody Guthrie is 100 years old this year, and alive as you or me. Music has a way of cutting the corner on mortality.

What do you hear in his songs about America? I’m swept into a tangle of love, gratitude, unease, anger, respect, heartbreak, awe, curiosity and joy.  His songs contain that jumble of emotions, but when he sings he somehow untangles us and takes us along one of the many paths we’re travelling as citizens.

That’s how I hear his Columbia River songs, written to celebrate dams at a time when big dams built by the government offered progress and hope to hard up and sometimes desperate Americans.  That’s why these Columbia songs last; they’re about the promise and search for better days:

Roll on, Columbia, roll on

Roll on, Columbia, roll on

Your power is turning our darkness to dawn

So roll on. Columbia, roll on

It was 1941, and war was closing in. Guthrie was 28 and needed a job. A new federal agency, the Bonneville Power Administration, paid him a few hundred dollars to wander the Northwest and write songs to celebrate Grand Coulee Dam -- which was started in 1933 and completed in 1942 --and the other big things the government and people were doing together in the Northwest.  He put his humanity into everything he wrote and his genius into at least some of it.  People will be singing Roll on Columbia long after the Columbia’s dams are gone.

Can you imagine Bonneville Power hiring Woody Guthrie today? His security check alone would make a talking blues video.  Yet BPA is using Roll On Columbia to celebrate itself and its dams, on the occasion of its 75th anniversary this year. I understand why, but it’s a bit dangerous. Woody Guthrie’s songs, radical spirit and life subvert the status quo, and BPA is now firmly an agent of the status quo.

What would he think of BPA and its dams today? I can’t describe him as an “environmentalist”; that’s anachronistic, given the times he lived in, and a word he would likely lampoon. But as a musical warrior for the hard-pressed, I think he’d see BPA about the same way he saw those who put up “No Trespassing” signs on any piece of land that’s reallyour land.

Roll on Columbia belongs to everyone now, so some people can absolutely sing it to celebrate dams.  Yet I’m guessing that more people will sing it to celebrate the river and its life. The spirit of the man and the times that produced the song has kept moving since 1941, and the power of our rivers to help us turn darkness to dawn is different now.  I think removing dams is fully in that spirit as long as we who advocate it keep people firmly in the picture.

Woody Guthrie borrowed song parts all the time, so it seems fitting that when the writer David James Duncan spoke to a group of fly-fishers on a sternwheeler moored in the Columbia a couple of decades ago, he did a little retooling on Roll On Columbia. He sang that Woody had come to him in a dream:

I had just drifted off when my spirit awoke

To the sound of a git-tar an' a sad voice that spoke

In a sweet Okie twang tailor-made to sing folk,

While outside the Columbia rolled on.

"Dave," the voice said, "this isn't no joke.

I been shanghaied to Limbo for a song I once wrote.

The BPA paid for it. Shit. I was broke.

It's called 'Roll On, Columbia, Roll On.'

"The song brags up the river an' that part deserves fame.

It's the braggin' 'bout factories an' dams that was lame.

Can you take down dictation so I can salvage my name?"

I said, "You betcha, Woody. Go on."

It went on for many verses, but here’s the end:

Rain on mountain makes river -- that's the law on this Earth.

The wild waters keep comin' till that law is reversed,

An' dams can be unbuilt to show folks the worth

Of a land where free rivers flow on.

Sing it back!

Roll on, Columbia, roll on.

Roll on, Columbia, roll on.

Once the land builds a river it can never be gone,

So roll on, Columbia, roll on.

I’ve also had a dream -- that we get up a contest for new versions of Roll on Columbia, BPA’s top people join us out on the river shore, and a people’s choir -- fishermen, mothers, children -- lead us all in singing the best five or six renditions.  Woody might want to make it out for that.

Pat Ford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He works for the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, which operates out of Boise, Portland, Seattle and Spokane.

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