Entertainment

BOOKMONGER: Lively history spotlights Woody Guthrie’s gig for the BPA

“26 Songs in 30 Days” by Greg Vandy, with Daniel Person

All of America regards Woody Guthrie as one of our nation’s legendary folksingers, and a new book spotlights the special — if brief — claim that the Pacific Northwest had on this traveling troubadour.

KEXP-Radio host Greg Vandy, with the help of Seattle Weekly editor Daniel Person, has written a lively history that combines biography, music, public policy and social and environmental concerns.

“26 Songs in 30 Days” reviews a singular month on the cusp of summer 1941, when the Oklahoma-born singer/songwriter — destitute, disheveled, and road-weary after the drive up from southern California— appeared at the Portland office of the Bonneville Power Administration while his family waited outside in a beat-up Pontiac that was soon to be repossessed.

Guthrie was looking for work, and he’d recently received a letter suggesting that the BPA was interested in hiring him — this was during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration when cultural funding was part of the New Deal.

But since that letter had been written, the uncertainties of war were looming larger, and the federal government was taking a more cautious approach toward spending.

Fortunately for posterity, Stephen Kahn was the local BPA public information officer, and he didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity standing in front of him. Instead of putting Guthrie through the rigamarole of signing a one-year contract, which would have required several layers of bureaucratic review and might not have resulted in ultimate approval, Kahn came up with an emergency appointment. For the princely sum of $266.66, he hired the singer/songwriter for one month. Guthrie’s assignment was to write a song a day for the next 30 days that dealt with the Northwestern territory the BPA served, and the agency’s specific effort to harness the Columbia River for power and irrigation by building the Grand Coulee Dam.

This gig turned out to be the most prolific period of Guthrie’s career. Kahn, noting the sorry condition of the singer’s car, provided a car and driver to drive him around to BPA projects while Guthrie sat in back, jotting down lyrics and strumming his guitar as he looked out at the landscape and envisioned the planned Promised Land.

Guthrie’s Dust Bowl roots made him passionate about the plight of the common man, and he saw this massive project as a boon for workers and farmers. As the authors point out with the benefit of hindsight, the songwriter’s understanding of the full consequences the dam would have on the Native Americans and the salmon runs was less developed, even though he met with tribal members at Celilo Falls. Of course, the Dalles Dam that drowned that important fishing site wasn’t built until the 1950s.

But Guthrie covered a lot of territory otherwise — composing songs about the workers building the dam, and about the changes the dam would bring about in terms of electrification, irrigation, and trade.

“26 Songs in 30 Days” is splendidly illustrated with images of Guthrie’s typed and handwritten lyrics and letters, postcards, historical photos, and marvelous BPA posters.

The Bookmonger review appears each week in Take Five. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

Reading

Greg Vandy shares this book at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 17, at Village Books, 1200 11th St., Fairhaven

  Comments