“Roll Columbia” Captures Spirit of Woody Guthrie (Album Review)

Roll Columbia: Woody Guthrie’s 26 Northwest Songs will make you feel like you are sitting in a bar in Oregon listening to singers capture the spirit of Guthrie.  The album, released by Smithsonian Folkways in early 2017, pays tribute to the 26 songs Guthrie wrote in 30 days while working for the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA).

Guthrie began his work for the BPA in May 1941, documenting what he saw in the Pacific Northwest.  During his month there, he was paid $267.  And in that short time he produced a number of songs used for a BPA movie soundtrack that later would be abandoned.  Guthrie only recorded 17 of the songs, but researchers discovered the other nine songs in the 1980s.

Folklorist Bill Murlin and Joe Seamons worked together to create Roll Columbia, an album putting together Guthrie’s BPA songs.  What makes the album special is that the artists on the album all currently live in the Pacific Northwest.  So, their connection to the place brings an added immediacy and timelessness to the songs.

You will recognize some of the songs on the album, such as one of Guthrie’s greatest songs, “Roll On, Columbia, Roll On.”  Other songs you may know include versions of “Jackhammer John” and “Hard Travelin’.”  But one of the joys of the collection is hearing new songs, or old songs interpreted in new ways.  One of my favorites is “Eleckatricity and All,” recorded by Annalisa Tornfelt, Emily Dalafolet, and Kristin Tornfelt.

The producers asked each artist on the album to record two songs from the BPA collection.  Some artists stayed very close to Guthrie’s melodies and styles, while some took slightly different approaches.  But they all still capture Guthrie’s spirit.  The performances would not be out of place in a small Northwest bar or club.

The liner notes for Roll Columbia are wonderful.  They not only tell the history of Guthrie’s songs.  They also provide additional information about the specific recordings and artists for each song.

Artists on the album include: Carl Allen, Kristin Andreassen, Peter Buck, Darrin Craig, Steve Einhorn, Chris Funk, Tony Furtado, David Grisman, Tracy Grisman, Ben Hunter, Michael Hurley, Al James, Orville Johnson, Scott McCaughey, John Moen, Cahalen Morrison, Bill Murlin and Fine Company, Jon Neufeld, Kate Power, George Rezendes, Pharis and Jason Romero, Caitlin Belem Romtvedt, David Romtvedt, Joe Seamons, Martha Scanlan, Timberbound, and Annalisa Tornfelt and the Tornfelt Sisters.

Interestingly, the producers also recognize the complex politics underlying the songs.  They realize how our views about dams have changed over time.  Thus, it is interesting to speculate about how Guthrie today might have approached some of these songs.  How would knowledge about the environmental impact of dams affect his approach?

Overall, Roll Columbia: Woody Guthrie’s 26 Northwest Songs is a highly enjoyable collection, providing an album you will want to put on and listen to several times.  You’ll enjoy the music on its own.  And you may also enjoy the stories behind the creation of the songs and the historical context.

For more on the story of how Guthrie came to write these songs, check out the book 26 Songs in 30 Days: Woody Guthrie & the Planned Promised Land by Greg Vandy. This short video shows a little more about Guthrie’s work for the BPA film.

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