Various Artists – Roll Columbia: Woody Guthrie’s 26 Northwest Songs

Album Review | Smithsonian Folkways | Review by Allan Wilkinson | Stars: 4/5

It comes as a surprise to find a new Woody Guthrie related album without the name Billy Bragg all over it. Guthrie’s self-styled successor doesn’t necessarily always have to be associated with Woody’s legacy. Of course, that legacy continues to be recognised on his home turf and not only in his birth state of Oklahoma, but all over the country and in the case of these songs, the Northwest Territories along the mighty Columbia River. The songs on Roll Columbia are from a period of hyperactivity during the Spring of 1941, which coincided with the building of the great dams along the Columbia River, notably the Grand Coulee Dam, a major construction project that would ostensibly bring ‘eleckatricity’ to the masses. Of the 26 songs included here, 17 were recorded by Guthrie for an accompanying documentary film commissioned by the Bonneville Power Administration, which eventually surfaced as The Columbia: America’s Greatest Power Stream (1949). Throwing himself into the task, Guthrie wrote ferociously for the period of one month, which resulted in a handful of highly memorable songs, such as “Ballad of the Great Grand Coulee Dam”, “Pastures of Plenty” and “Roll, Columbia, Roll”. Some of the songs were written prior to the project such as “Hard Travelin’”, which here is given some of that authentic Guthrie treatment by Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons, two major players in this project, whilst one or two songs are being heard for the very first time, in much the same manner as the songs on Mermaid Avenue by the aforementioned Billy Bragg and Wilko back in 1998. “Lumber is King” is one such song, performed here quite brilliantly by Cahalen Morrison, a voice of authority and clarity, not unlike that of Guthrie himself. Interestingly, these songs were written in the same year as America joined all the fun in Europe and Hitler gets a mention in “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done”, which in effect puts the project in some additional historical context. With other contributions by Pharis and Jason Romero, David Grisman, Tony Furtado and REM’s Peter Buck, the album comes with an informative 44-page booklet and 26 songs that capture perfectly an important era in America’s Northwestern history.