In 1961, WSU students Carl Allen, left, Al Hansen and Bill Murlin of “The Wanderers”
perform Guthrie songs at a campus dance. (Photo courtesy of Bill Murlin)
PULLMAN, Wash. – For a folk singer who’s been dead 45 years, Woody Guthrie is drawing more attention than ever. In this year of his 100th birthday, Americans are throwing celebration gatherings from the Kennedy Center’s $175 gala in New York City to a free concert at the Fall Folk Festival in Spokane, Wash.
Though the legendary balladeer never lived in Washington state, he left a deep footprint after a brief stay in the Northwest in 1941. For more than a half-century, school children from Pullman to Port Angeles have been singing his folk classic “Roll on, Columbia” and, in 1987, it became Washington’s official folk song.
What lured the Oklahoma-raised Guthrie to the Northwest and why did he write that now-famous song? A screening of an old film and some detective work by Washington State University alumnus Bill Murlin answered those questions, deepening Guthrie’s footprint in the process.
And amazingly, one day Murlin would find himself strumming his guitars and singing onstage with Guthrie’s iconic musician son, Arlo, best known for his performance at Woodstock and for his 22-minute anti-war ballad called “Alice’s Restaurant,” released in 1967.
Bill Murlin, right, performs with Woody’s son,
Arlo Guthrie, at Portland, Ore.’s BPA Auditorium in
spring 1987. (Photo courtesy of Bill Murlin)
“I never imagined that I would perform with Arlo,” said Murlin. “Yes, I was nervous. I was afraid I’d forget the lyrics to the songs.”
His work belongs to you and me
When Murlin, who graduated from WSU in 1963 with a degree in TV/radio-speech, saw Woody Guthrie’s name in the credits of a grainy black and white film, he wondered if he had unearthed a hidden treasure.
The Spokane native knew a lot about the prolific songwriter, having performed “This Land is Your Land” and other Guthrie tunes in the early 1960s while in a folk-band trio called “The Wanderers,” first formed at WSU. After graduating, he and college buddy Carl Allen continued to perform, expanding their repertoire of Guthrie songs. All these years later, they still play together.
So, by the time Murlin saw that film in 1980, he knew a lot about Guthrie’s music and life – how he wrote clever and poetic songs about the struggles and dreams of America’s proverbial little guy, how he jumped trains and hitchhiked armed with his guitar and harmonica, and how, at age 55, he died of a genetically inherited neurological disease called Huntington’s in 1967.
“At least I thought I knew a lot,” said Murlin, who found the film inside a metal canister while working as an audio-visual specialist for the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) in Portland.
“The Columbia” is a 20-minute clip promoting public power generated by two giant dams on the Columbia River. Produced by the BPA in 1948, it opens with the sound of a blaring orchestra, along with the film’s title and credits. Among the titles of editor, photographer and narrator, Murlin saw: “Songs . . . . . WOODY GUTHRIE.”
“I remember thinking, ‘Wait a second; Woody worked for the BPA?’ That was quite a surprise,” said Murlin by phone from his Portland, Ore.-area home.
But after the orchestra gave way to guitar strumming, and Guthrie’s voice – textured like rawhide – started singing the lyrics to “Roll, Columbia, Roll” in the foreground, “There was no question that I was hearing Woody in the film’s soundtrack,” said Murlin. “My pulse rate shot up.”
One discovery led to another. While rummaging through BPA cabinets, Murlin found a folder containing Guthrie’s employment papers.
Carl Allen, left, and Bill Murlin met as WSU
students in 1959 and now travel the Northwest
performing Woody Guthrie tunes. Note the framed
print of Guthrie and the Columbia River behind them.
“They showed that in May 1941, Guthrie was temporarily employed to write folk songs about harnessing energy from the Columbia River and to promote public hydroelectric power,” said Murlin.
Guthrie earned $266.66 to churn out 26 songs in 30 days. His song that would become Washington’s official folk song, “Roll on, Columbia,” was one of them.
Following Woody’s footsteps
In retracing Guthrie’s journey, Murlin discovered that BPA worker Elmer Buehler had driven Guthrie up and down the Columbia River to help him get ideas for lyrics. They spent time at Grand Coulee dam in central Washington, one of the “biggest things that man has ever done,” as Guthrie wrote in one of the songs.
Over several years, Murlin tracked down lyrics to the 26 songs and recordings of 17. From one end of the country to the other, some had been stored in people’s houses and others in federal archives. A few Guthrie had commercially recorded.
Using what he collected, Murlin published a songbook and an album of the 17 recordings. “The Columbia River Collection,” recorded by Rounder Records, revealed some songs the public had never before heard, he said.
“The songs spoke to the common man, largely about farmers, loggers, lumberjacks and families, and how the river and its dams could improve their lives,” said Murlin. “Some are among his best work.”
Ramblin’ man’s son
And then there’s Arlo Guthrie, who teamed up with Murlin in 1983 to record “Roll Columbia, Roll” for the documentary “Hard Travelin,” where Murlin’s name appears alongside folksong greats such as Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Hoyt Axton.
Four years later, the two merged again to perform in Portland in the BPA’s 50th anniversary year. Afraid that he’d forget the words to the songs, “I hauled a stool out on stage, turned it backward and attached the lyrics,” said Murlin. “It looks really dumb in the picture, but there it is.”
Topical and timeless
Woody Guthrie, whose songs about hardship and
hope have influenced a generation of musicians,
including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Wilco.
Though Guthrie only spent a month in the Northwest, his influence still resonates, said WSU Vancouver history professor Laurie Mercier. He was a man who loved words and spun them, she said, and his time here represented the zenith of his career.
“I talk about him in my Pacific Northwest history class, in the context of federal projects in the 1930s and wartime industrial expansion in the ‘40s,” she said. “Guthrie supported public projects like dam building for the ‘greater good’ they provided in terms of jobs, flood prevention and cheap public power.”
Do students keen on musicians like ke$ha, 2 Chainz and Mumford & Sons even know who Guthrie was?
“Sadly, I don’t think I’ve had a student who knew of Guthrie for about the last 10 years,” said Mercier. So, to help them appreciate his work, “I talk about his influence on rock, blues and folk artists of the past half century and efforts by Wilco and Billy Bragg and others to revive and pay tribute to his songs.”
Take, for instance, this verse from Guthrie’s “Revolutionary Mind,” courtesy of Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.:
“I need a progressive woman
I need an awful liberal woman
I need a social conscious woman
To ease my revolutionary mind.”
Even Lady Gaga would approve.