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Album: Roll Columbia: Woody Guthrie’s 26 Northwest Songs
Label: Smithsonian Folkways
Tracks: 15+13

This fascinating, brilliantly well-packaged release falls rather between the stools – historical document, homage, reconstruction – but it’s a mighty important one nevertheless, and one no Guthrie aficionado should be without. It’s a collection of songs written by Woody Guthrie as a response to a commission by the Bonneville Power Administration in 1941, the brief being to promote to the public the construction of dams along the Columbia River. It’s a song-cycle in all but name, as had also been an earlier collection of songs Guthrie had written about the Dust Bowl – to which some of the songs here are a kind of travelling extension, so to speak.

The songs are performed with authority and enthusiasm by various soloists or combinations of performers drawn from a 30-strong cast of singers and musicians both famed and up-and-coming but all with a pedigree in American roots and folk musics. These include veterans Jon Neufeld, Tony Furtado, David Grisman, Darrin Craig, Michael Hurley and Orville Johnson, and worthy younger entrants Ben Hunter, Joe Seamons, Pharis & Jason Romero, John Moen and Cahalen Morrison. The songs themselves are a mix of pretty well-known and completely unknown titles, and this is the first time the songs arising from the commission have all been collected together. For of the 26 songs Guthrie wrote for the commission, he only actually recorded 17 (and some of those weren’t even published commercially). The remaining nine were recovered by folklorist Bill Murlin, who oversaw their eventual publication in the Roll Columbia Songbook in 1987 and who has with Joe Seamons co-produced this Folkways release. Guthrie wrote all 26 of the songs in just 30 days – quite a feat by any songwriting standards, but apparently not untypical of Guthrie. Several of the songs unashamedly adopt the familiar Guthrie practice of reusing known tunes from well-loved songs – eg. Crawdad Song, Goin’ Down The Road, One Dime Blues, On Top Of Old Smokey, even Goodnight Irene – while Guys On The Grand Coolee Dam bases both melody and structure directly on Widdecombe Fair, with sly nods to Pete Seeger along the way, and It Takes A Married Man (To Sing A Worried Song) is a barely disguised rewrite of Worried Man Blues, which Guthrie would’ve known from The Carter Family’s recording.

This Roll Columbia edition gives us 28 tracks in all, within which two songs – Pastures Of Plenty and Jackhammer Blues – are each performed twice, and by different artists. There’s also a surprising number of the songs – eg. White Ghost Train, The Talking Blues and the well-loved Hard Travelin’ – that don’t have any specific thematic connection with the topic of the commission, but that doesn’t affect the maths. The songs are presented as they were written, except (we’re told) for the excision of a very few verses that the producers found extraneous or offensive – no clues here as to what that has involved, however. More interestingly, some songs have been creatively updated or altered in mood to reflect the attitudes of our own times – eg the original bragging bravado of Jackhammer Blues is now reworked, with a cooler, reflective irony, by Martha Scanlan and is one of the collection’s standout tracks. Of the more familiar songs, Grand Coolee Dam (which Lonnie Donegan made a hit in 1958) and the lyrical anthem Roll, Columbia, Roll (oft-covered but only recorded by Guthrie himself on a 1941 basement acetate, not commercially) come off particularly well here. The newly-unearthed songs are a mixed bunch, which doesn’t explain their long-time neglect, but Portland Town To Klamath Falls and Out Past The End Of The Line are certainly archetypal Guthrie fare, and Lumber Is King, Grand Coulee Powder Monkey and Eleckatricity And All make fair game. Recording quality is just fine, suitably down-home and intimate, although there are one or two peculiarities of balance and ambience here and there. The supporting 44-page booklet is fully in accordance with Folkways house standards, and the notes are excellent. Finally, we’re reminded within that this album has been created in order to pass the songs down to the coming generations while also engaging three generations of today’s musicians in the process. So there you go!

David Kidman