MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Now, back to a time way before digital music, May of 1941. That's the month when Woody Guthrie wrote some of his best-known songs. The folk singer, who would be 95 tomorrow, spent that May in the Pacific Northwest working for the federal government. His job was to write songs promoting huge hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River.
As NPR's Jeff Brady reports, the government faced powerful opposition from private utilities and hoped folk songs would prompt more public support.
JEFF BRADY: Woody Guthrie was assigned a driver for that month, Elmer Buehler, who is now 96 years old. He remembers well the first time he met Guthrie in Portland, Oregon, at the Bonneville Power Administration headquarters. This was before Guthrie was a folk music legend. He was 28 years old and looking for work.
Mr. ELMER BUEHLER (Woody Guthrie's driver): He sat on the administrator's desk, and strummed on his guitar, as he always said. I don't think he was there over half hour. And Dr. Raver said, well, you're hired.
BRADY: Administrator Paul Raver paid Guthrie $266.66. When the month was over, the folk singer had written 26 songs - that's roughly 10 bucks a piece. He recorded a few of the tunes in the basement of the agency's headquarters.
(Soundbite of song "Roll on Columbia")
Mr. WOODY GUTHRIE (Folk Singer): (Singing) Roll on, Columbia, roll on, roll on, Columbia, roll on. Your power is turning our darkness to dawn. Roll on, Columbia, roll on.
BRADY: Guthrie wrote "Roll on Columbia" after seeing the Bonneville Dam, 40 miles east of Portland. Sixty-six years later, white waters still brushes through the hydroelectric generators in the dam, creating enough power for entire towns.
Elmer Buehler says he drove Guthrie here in a brand new 1941 Hudson Hornet. That was just one of the many stops they made that month.
Mr. BUEHLER: He got to see that Eastern Washington country, thousands of acres of land with nothing but sage brush and jack rabbits and stuff like that. And now, it's the greatest farmland that you could think of because they got water, they put in reservoirs.
BRADY: Guthrie's songs echoed this optimistic period in the West. Few were thinking of the salmon the dams would sacrifice. Instead, it was all about harnessing nature's power to help people.
(Soundbite of song "Grand Coulee Dam")
Mr. GUTHRIE: (Singing) Now the world holds seven wonders that the travelers always tell. Some gardens and some towers, I guess you know them well. But now the greatest wonder is in Uncle Sam's fair land. It's the king Columbia River and the big Grand Coulee Dam.
If the tune to a "Grand Coulee Dam" sounds familiar, think "Wabash Cannonball," says Bill Murlin. He's a folk singer and former Bonneville employee who took a special interest in Guthrie's time with the agency. He says Guthrie's gift was lyrics. He often borrowed melodies from other musicians.
Mr. BILL MURLIN (Folk singer): Just majestic lyrics, describing what he saw -in the misty, crystal glitter of that wild and windward spray.
(Soundbite of song "Grand Coulee Dam")
Mr. GUTHRIE: (Singing) In the misty, crystal glitter of that wild and windward spray, I fought the pounding waters and met a watery grave. And she tore their boats to splinters and she gave men dreams to dream on the day the Coulee Dam was crossed by the wild and wasted stream.
BRADY: Murlin says the lyrics also show Guthrie's political leanings. There's much talk about how irrigation, shipping and electricity would help the common man.
Mr. MURLIN: It's the attitude I see in a lot of the songs. Heck, with building dams and so forth. If the dams are creating something that the little guy can benefit from, I'm on that.
BRADY: Elmer Buehler says he saw evidence of that same attitude during his month-long trip with Guthrie. At one point, the head of a local Chamber of Commerce asked the singer to perform at a function.
Mr. BUEHLER: They wanted him to play background music, and he gave them the answer. He said, I wouldn't play any background music, let alone foreground music, for any chamber of commerce, that's the way he put it.
BRADY: But Buehler says Guthrie was willing to play for less fortunate folks. He remembers hotel lobby in the small, blue-collar port town of Arlington, Oregon. Buehler says much of the town turned out for an impromptu concert, and Guthrie played for them until nearly midnight.
Jeff Brady, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.