“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.

Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    They’re Selling Postcards of the Hanging: The Real Lynching in Dylan’s “Desolation Row”

    On June 15, 1920, residents of Duluth, Minnesota lynched three African-American circus workers: Isaac McGhie, Elias Clayton and Elmer Jackson. An 8-year-old child named Abraham Zimmerman lived in Duluth at the time.  And he grew up to have a son named Robert, who would later become famous with the name Bob Dylan. So, the lynching that Zimmerman witnessed eventually played a role in what American Songwriter has called Dylan’s sixth greatest song of all time.

    Abe Zimmerman reportedly taught his son about the lynching.  The lesson was similar to the way Woody Guthrie’s father told him about a lynching he had witnessed (that similarly inspired Guthrie to write an excellent song). Zimmerman’s story of the lynching in Minnesota and its aftermath eventually provided the imagery for the opening of Dylan’s “Desolation Row.”

    The Crime and Arrests

    In 1920, McGhie, Clayton, and Jackson worked with the John Robinson Circus as cooks or laborers. On the morning of June 15, James Sullivan called the police.  He told them that one night earlier his eighteen-year-old son and his son’s nineteen-year-old companion Irene Tusken had been held at gunpoint. Sullivan reported that his son told him that Tusken had been raped.

    Reportedly, there was no physical evidence of the rape.  But the Duluth police rounded up around 150 circus workers.  Then, the police asked the teens to identify the attackers among the circus workers.

    Six African-American men were arrested — including McGhie, Clayton, and Jackson.  Then, tensions rose in the community. Newspapers reported on the arrests and rumors spread around town.

    The Lynchings

    Eventually, a mob of 6,000-10,000 stormed into the jail.  They met little or no resistance from the police. They broke into the cells where they could, and they took McGhie, Clayton, and Jackson.

    First, the mob beat and hanged Isaac McGhie from a lamp post, despite the objections of a priest. Then, they similarly beat and hanged Elmer Jackson and Elias Clayton.

    The Minnesota National Guard arrived the next day to protect the three remaining prisoners.  But they were too late to help McGhie, Clayton, and Jackson.

    Three men in the mob were convicted of rioting.  Each served less than 15 months in prison. Nobody was convicted of murder.

    Seven of the remaining circus laborers were indicted for rape, and one man was convicted. Further, eventually it came out that Sullivan’s teen-aged son had made up the story of the rape that had set everything in motion.

    As was the case with many lynchings of African-Americans during the early twentieth century, photos of the lynching were taken and sent as postcards. The photo features Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie, both shirtless, hanging from the street light with Elias Clayton’s body on the sidewalk,.  Members of the mob lean in to be part of the photo. Part of the photo is at the top of this post, but you may see the entire photo postcard here (warning: graphic image).

    Desolation Row

    Bob Dylan was born only 21 years after the lynching, and so he may have seen the photo postcards that circulated in the area. Thus, he begins his epic song “Desolation Row” with a reference to these photographs.

    They’re selling postcards of the hanging;
    They’re painting the passports brown;
    The beauty parlor is filled with sailors;
    The circus is in town.

    The song continues, perhaps with “the blind commissioner” being a reference to the failures of the police to protect the three men. Of course, it is generally impossible to interpret every line of a Dylan song.

    Yet, it is clear that the lynching is the jumping off point as Dylan delves into a number of themes.  “Desolation Row” continues with references to the circus imagery that provided the setting for the Duluth lynching.

    Here comes the blind commissioner,
    They’ve got him in a trance;
    One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker,
    The other is in his pants;
    And the riot squad they’re restless,
    They need somewhere to go;
    As Lady and I look out tonight
    From Desolation Row.

    Recordings of “Desolation Row”

    “Desolation Row” originally appeared on Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited in 1965. More recently, alternate versions from the original recording sessions were released on The Best Of The Cutting Edge 1965 – 1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12.

    Additionally, there are various live versions of the song.  One great live version appears on The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live, 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall Concert.” Below is another live version where Dylan changes up the music a bit, as he often does.

    “Desolation Row” features some of Dylan’s greatest images, including the opening about the postcards of the hanging. In the book Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Oliver Trager describes the song as “science fiction noir where mythology and history’s heroes and heels lurk in the shadows of every alleyway.” He concludes that the song “is perhaps the the most nightmarish vision in Dylan’s canon.”


    It remains a mystery whether the three lynched men had committed any crime or whether the story was completely fabricated by the teen-aged boy. Race played a significant role in the lynching, and even today in typical criminal cases we know that eyewitness testimony is generally unreliable.

    The 1920 lynching, either way, was certainly a tragedy.  Mob mentality and racial animosity took the lives of the three men.

    Historically, lynchings occurred most often in the South against African-American men.  But it was not unusual for lynchings to take place in the North. There were at least 219 people lynched in northern states from 1889 to 1918. Although times have changed, we still see echoes of these acts of racial violence in the news today.

    The Duluth lynching, in particular, has haunted those connected to it in various ways. The great-grandson of one of the Duluth lynchers wrote a book several years ago called The Lyncher In Me.

    And Dylan’s “Desolation Row” is another kind of postcard of the hanging.  In the song, the lynching image mingles with other pictures that continue to haunt old and new listeners.

    Partial photo of lynching via public domain. Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Lucinda Williams Explores “Just the Working Life”

    One of my favorite CDs of the last few years is the double album Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (2014) by Lucinda Williams. The album revealed that Williams is still at her peak eleven studio albums into a long career and still producing her best work. So, we are excited that Williams will soon release a new album, which includes a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Factory” as well as a Woody Guthrie song.

    Williams’s new album, entitled The Ghosts of Highway 20, focuses on characters who live along or travel on I-20, the highway that runs across the northern part of Williams’s home state of Louisiana. The album features fourteen songs, including twelve originals.

    The decision to include Springsteen’s “Factory” is relevant to the theme of the album. Springsteen wrote the song for his father, and the song first appeared on Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town in 1978. But nearly four decades later, even as more and more factory workers have lost jobs due to automation and other reasons, the struggles of working people to get by still resonates.

    Below, Williams performs “Factory” at one of Springsteen’s own stomping grounds, the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Check out this performance from 2014.

    In addition to the Springsteen cover, the album includes “House of Earth,” a song where Williams put music to lyrics written by Woody Guthrie. The haunting song is in the voice of a prostitute: “So come to my house of earth and learn its worth / A few green folded bills to learn of birth.”

    In a way, Guthrie’s song is a companion to Springsteen’s “Factory.” One might imagine Springsteen’s factory worker on the other end of the conversation, as the woman recounts her own sad working life and makes promises that she may or may not fulfill: “I’ll furnish red hot kisses and the hole/ That wakes up sleeping sickness in your soul.” Below is a version of “House of Earth” that Williams performed at the Kennedy Center in honor of Guthrie’s 100th birthday.

    Like Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, the new album is produced by Williams, Tom Overby, and pedal-steel player Greg Leisz. One of my favorite jazz guitarists, Bill Frisell, also makes a guest appearance on the album. Ghosts of Highway 20 hits stores on February 5, 2016.

    What is your favorite Lucinda Williams album? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Songs About Homelessness

    Music can address societal issues in different ways. Sometimes a song will tackle a big issue head on.  But more often than not, issues are addressed through personal stories or observations. One important societal issue that occasionally appears in popular song is the problem that so many of our fellow humans live without a home. Below are some examples of some songs that address homelessness to varying degrees.

    In 2011, singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran released ‘The A Team’ as the lead single of his first album +. Sheeran wrote the song about a prostitute addicted to crack cocaine after he visited a homeless shelter.

    “Ain’t Got No Home” is a folk song that was made popular by Woody Guthrie: “Just a wandrin’ worker, I go from town to town. / And the police make it hard wherever I may go / And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.”

    In this video, Rosanne Cash performs “I Ain’t Got No Home”.

    Greg Trooper’s “They Call Me Hank” is about a homeless man named Bill. The song appeared on Trooper’s album Upside-Down Town.

    Here Trooper performs the song at Music City Roots live from the Loveless Cafe in June 2014.

    One of the more famous songs about homelessness is “Another Day in Paradise” by Phil Collins. The song appeared on his 1989 hit album But Seriously, where the singer sees a man avoiding a homeless person.

    Collins asks us to think twice about living another day in paradise, but a lot of critics thought that the song seemed disingenuous coming from someone as rich as Collins.

    The great songwriter Guy Clark recorded a song called “Homeless.” The song appears on Clark’s 2006 album The Dark.

    Like several other songs by Clark, he talks us through much of the story with a memorable chorus.

    Finally, another famous song that is about a homeless person is the Christmas song “Pretty Paper,” which was a hit in an excellent recording by Roy Orbison. The song about a person who in the midst of holiday shopping sees a homeless person was written by a young songwriter who would later go on to have a pretty successful career himself.

    So here is that songwriter, Willie Nelson, singing his version of the song he wrote.

    Other songs with homelessness themes include Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung,” Ralph McTell’s “Streets of London,” and “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)” by Crystal Waters.

    Music, of course, cannot solve problems but it can help educate us. More than 60,000 people sleep in homeless shelters each night in New York City alone. Homelessness continues to be a problem across the U.S., and in particular, the number of homeless LGBT youth on the streets continues to rise due to a lack of support for them.

    A number of organizations around the country work to help the homeless, and this website lists a number of ways that you can help the homeless (besides writing a song).

    What other songs are there about homelessness? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The Cowboy Philosopher Will Rogers

    On November 4, 1879, William Penn Adair Rogers was born on a ranch in Cherokee Indian territory.  His birthplace was near what is now Oologah, Oklahoma.  The family called the young boy by the name “Will,” and he would grow up to be beloved by the country as Will Rogers.

    In 1898, the young man left home to work as a cowboy, and in 1902 began his show business career when he joined Texas Jack‘s Wild West show as a trick roper and rider. Before long, Rogers realized that audiences loved his humor and cowboy philosophy, eventually becoming a national celebrity through movie roles, magazine and newspaper articles, and in-person and radio appearances.

    Bacon, Beans, and Limousines

    Rogers’s honest humor struck a chord with America as it went into the Great Depression. In 1931, President Herbert Hoover’s Organization on Unemployment Relief asked him to address the nation. Rogers delivered what became known as his “Bacon, Beans, and Limousines” speech, where he addressed unemployment and the causes of the Depression.

    Check out this video of the October 18, 1931 speech from the Will Rogers Memorial Museums.


    Will Rogers, however, did not get to see the end of the Depression, as he passed away on August 15, 1935. Rogers was an advocate for the early aviation industry, and he died in a plane crash while traveling in Alaska with renowned aviator Wiley Post. Many mourned the passing of one of the most beloved Americans whose life overlapped with another rising Oklahoma philosopher, Woody Guthrie (1912-1967).

    TV and Film

    The weekly television show Man of the Year paid tribute to Will Rogers when it looked back on the year 1935. The interesting episode features a lot of video footage of Rogers.

    The video covers the life of Will Rogers, and around the 12:20 mark, the host introduces humorists Steve Allen and Fred Allen to discuss the importance of the cowboy philosopher.

    Several actors have portrayed Rogers in movies, including Keith Carradine (who also played Woody Guthrie in a film). I recall first learning about Will Rogers from the 1952 film called The Story of Will Rogers, where Will Rogers, Jr. portrayed his father.

    Many today may not know much about Will Rogers, but he was significantly influential in his time and worth remembering on this anniversary of his birth.

    Public domain photo via Library of Congress. What is your favorite Will Rogers story? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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