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“Roll On, Columbia”: Newly-discovered Woody Guthrie discs acquired by AFC

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This is a guest post by AFC acquisitions coordinator, Todd Harvey.

Close up of label for instantaneous disc recording of "Ballad of the Grand Coulee Dam" by Woody Guthrie. Text on typed label reads "Ballad of the Grand Coulee Dam (Woody Gutherie)".
Label for the instantaneous disc recording of “Ballad of the Grand Coulee Dam” by Woody Guthrie. Photo by Todd Harvey.
A photo featuring American Folklife Center acquisitions coordinator, Todd Harvey, taking posession of a package containing several rare Woody Guthrie recordings. He and another Library staff member are standing in the loading dock at the Library of Congress. Photo by John Fenn.
Todd Harvey receives the package of Guthrie recordings at the Library of Congress loading dock. Photo by John Fenn.

“Big things come in small packages,” they say. I coordinate acquisitions for the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and I can attest to the wisdom of this adage. Our archive accessions about a quarter-million items annually and they range from the invisible—most are digital files—to the tangible, without direct correlation between research value and fixed form. Similarly, some collections are vast and some are not, but all add to the ornate tapestry of expressive culture documentation that comprises the Folklife Center archive.

A small package arrived last week containing ten 12-inch instantaneous discs. They had been obtained in a Portland, Oregon, estate sale by a local record collector. They appear to be recordings of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie singing such classics as “Pastures of Plenty,” “Roll on Columbia,” “Columbia Talking Blues,” and seven others. In my estimation they are heretofore lost discs from Guthrie’s 1941 recording session in Portland.

The session dates from a well-known part of Woody’s songwriting career. Hired by the Bonneville Power Authority (BPA) to provide music for a film about the nearly completed Grand Coulee Dam, Woody spent a month musing about the Columbia River, mentally tracing the canyons that would soon be flooded, articulating the dam’s meaning to this dry Northwest region. He claims to have written 26 songs, a handful of which he recorded at the BPA offices in Portland, Oregon.

Photo depicting Todd Harvey opening the package in order to inspect its contents prior to sign a docment acknowledging receipt. Photo by John Fenn.
Harvey inspects the contents of the Guthrie package prior to signing in order to accept delivery. Photo by John Fenn.

Here is the tricky part, the caveat that always accompanies this type of material. Instantaneous discs require specific playback styli to avoid damage. Library of Congress standards demand that discs only be played by a trained engineer for preservation purposes.  Before listening, our processing archivists need to rehouse and catalog. The discs will then be moved from Capitol Hill to the National Audiovisual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia, where they will be digitized.

Once they are digitized, scholars can listen and determine, for example, if we have three new versions of “Pastures of Plenty” to discuss. At this point, however, we know the basic provenance. A noted authority was consulted and agreed that they looked like originals or near-original copies of Woody’s Bonneville Power Authority recordings. We know what is written on the discs. Was it worth the effort? What do you think?

Photograph of a full disc from the collection of ten. Photo by Todd Harvey.
One of the ten discs that form this important collection. Photo by Todd Harvey.


Comments (12)

  1. Great work by Mr. Harvey! Just FYI, found unreleased version of “Arkansas Traveler” by WG on 7″ thrown in a Guy Lombardo box in the Asch Collection over at Rinzler 😉

    • We appreciate the feedback. What a find with that 7 inch! Any idea of the year it was recorded?

  2. What a wonderful find! It is absolutely important to hear what is on these discs.

    • Thanks for reading, and look for more on this collection as we process it and get it ready for digitization. We’ll be sure to make an announcement when we have files for listening!

  3. Wow! For some unrelated and incomprehensible reason I had an earworm of “Roll On Columbia” earlier this week, so this will, sadly, cement that in my brain.

    • While those earworms are annoying, we’re glad you ran across this post. Stay tuned, as we’ll make sure and let everyone know when the version of “Roll On Columbia” discussed here is available for listening!

  4. Thanks for posting this. I reviewed these discs when they were first found. I believe them to be potentially copies of recordings made either in Portland or New York City. Until I can hear the digitized versions, I can’t be sure. However, none of the songs on these discs were lost, in that all the songs had been previously published or issued on albums. What I hope is that clean versions of Roll Columbia Roll and Pastures of Plenty in the original minor key have been found. Heretofore the copies of those songs have been in bad shape.
    Another little correction, please. The agency that hired Woody is the Bonneville Power Administration, not “authority” as posted. The movie was to be about Columbia River development, not specifically about Grand Coulee Dam. It included Bonneville Dam and the potential results of these for regional power, navigation, irrigation and World War II industry. The movie was to be and became larger than just about Grand Coulee Dam.
    Thanks. Anticipating the digitized versions of the discs.

    • Bill, Many thanks for reading the post and offering comment. We intended the post to be a preliminary announcement alerting folks that we have the discs, and worked to be careful not to misrepresent your assessment of the content by stating that we know only what is written on the discs. Of course, we will need to recount your earlier findings and deposit at the National Archives in subsequent posts.

      Thanks for the clarification about the proper BPA name. We should have checked our work more carefully!

  5. Many thanks to the conscientious and generous record collector in Portland!

  6. This is amazing, how exciting!

    People who are interested in hearing modern interpretations of these songs can google “Roll Columbia” and hear the album Bill Murlin co-produced with me on the Smithsonian Folkways label last year, the first time ever all 26 song lyrics were recorded in a single volume.

  7. In 1983 I was staff on the Water and Power Subcommittee of the Senate Commiittee on Energy and Natural Resources. The Subcommittee had jurisdiction over the BPA. I received a phone call from a BPA employee who was researching Woody Guthrie’s BPA employment. He said that Guthrie had been recorded in the Basement of BPA but the recordings were ordered destroyed during the Eisenhower administration because of their socialist content. He found a retired BPA employee who had made copies of the recordings and they were given to him. When their existence became known up the chain of command, they were once again ordered destroyed and suppressed (this was the Reagan Administration). Ultimately the recordings made their way to Alan Lomax that year. I have a copy.
    That is another story.

    • Thanks for reading, and for offering some more context to the piece.

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