The documentary didn't work out, but Guthrie walked up and down the Willamette and Columbia rivers and wrote 26 songs for it anyway, including
"Roll On Columbia,"
"Grand Coulee Dam"
In the latter, he talks about enduring the Depression-era Dust Bowl and finding his way to Oregon's clear waters and verdant lands. Instead of giving himself a fine pat on the back for being such a resourceful fellow, however, he sings of better times ahead:
"I'll turn my stone and till my land/Waiting for the big Bonneville Dam/That Bonneville Dam is a sight to see/Makes that e-lec-a-tric-i-ty."
Does he bemoan the Grand Coulee as a monstrosity? No, to him it was "the greatest wonder in Uncle Sam's fair land" and vital for what laid ahead, especially for a man with a guitar bearing the warning "This machine kills fascists."
"Now in Washington and Oregon you hear the factories hum/Making chrome and making manganese and light aluminum/And there roars a mighty furnace now to fight for Uncle Sam/Spawned upon the King Columbia by the big Grand Coulee Dam."
Now Guthrie's Columbia River songs didn't immediately fix every concern about the dams. Even the Grand Coulee Dam visitor center features a multimedia display that details how even seemingly minor decisions relating to the dam have major impact on salmon and sturgeon populations, irrigation, river commerce, the water recreation industry and land use. Debate about the dams continues, but they still light large swaths of the Pacific Northwest.
Roughly 72 years after Guthrie's trip to the Northwest, Laura Gibson's song for Cover Oregon follows a template similar to that of Guthrie's Columbia River songs. The soft, simple twang of her guitar, the vivid descriptions of Oregonian scenery and even the gentle, repetitive rhythm of the song itself couldn't echo "Roll On, Columbia" more loudly if it was shouted into the Columbia River Gorge.
Just as the power from Guthrie's rolling Columbia was "turning our darkness to dawn," Gibson's "Live Long, Oregon" focuses on the health care law's power to help her and those around her do just that. Each knew their audience and each realized that the best way to get their message across was also the most positive. In Oregon's delicate mix of progressive and libertarian ethics, that approach strikes the right note more often than not.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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