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New book offers folk legend's grit and gumption in the context of his time

 

Author Greg Vandy's "26 Songs in 30 Days" is a fascinating book that explores the folk musician Woody Guthrie's month-long employment by the Bonneville Power Administration in 1941 when Guthrie was assigned to write one song per day while being driven all along the Columbia River.

Visiting the sites of dams, most notably the Grand Coulee Dam, Guthrie churned out the songs, which include now legendary folk songs such as "Pastures of Plenty," "Grand Coulee Dam," and "Roll On, Columbia "(Washington's official state folk song). They originally had been meant for a documentary film entitled "The Columbia." Intended to be a great feature film, it ended up being only 21 minutes long and was not released until 1949. The songs, nonetheless, have become legendary to folk music enthusiasts, and Guthrie is now known as a legend, although at the time he was perceived as a scruffy little guy with a guitar who wandered the country with a down-to-earth persona.

Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912. His life was full of a lot of hard times and hard traveling, and he is said to have written over 1,000 songs in his lifetime, including the well-known "This Land Is Your Land." He died in 1967 after suffering for several years from Huntington's Chorea, a degenerative nerve disease. His impact on music is immense. He was the key influence on artists such as Bob Dylan, who has also sung "Grand Coulee Dam" and has had a large influence on music himself.

A champion of the underdog and the working class, Guthrie wrote lyrics that capture the beauty of the region, the good nature of hard working Americans and the optimism offered during the Great Depression by the immense dam-building projects, including the Grand Coulee Dam, which Guthrie describes as the "biggest thing that man has ever done."

The book alternates between descriptions of Woody's life and the development of the dam projects. Its multidimensional examination explores the complexity of the politics of the time of the dam's construction, touching upon the Grand Coulee Dam's role in WWII, the state of farmers in America following the Great Dust Bowl - which Guthrie had experienced first hand - the optimism about irrigation opportunities from the dams, and the negative aspect the dams had on the salmon and the Native American way of life.

Vandy, who since 2000 has hosted "The Roadhouse," a radio show on folk, blues and other "roots-inspired" music on Seattle's KEXP, then describes the writing of the songs, their role in folk music, and Woody's life afterward, as well as how the songs were preserved. Vandy had help in the writing effort from journalist Daniel Person, who actually lived in Grand Coulee recently for a few months while his wife took part of her University of Washington medical education at Coulee Medical Center. He's written major features on the history of the area for regional newspapers.

Folk enthusiasts and local history buffs will be fascinated by the facts and trivia that fill the book. I've personally been studying Woody Guthrie for years. I've lived in the area since 2001 and have learned a great deal about Guthrie and the area, but had not personally seen many of the fascinating photos spread throughout the book.

"26 Songs in 30 Days, Woody Guthrie's Columbia River Songs and the Planned Promised Land in the Pacific Northwest," will be released on April 12, 2016, published by Sasquatch Books, for $24.95.

Until then, here's a familiar sample of Guthrie's lyrics to hold you over:

"In the misty crystal glitter of the wild and way ward spray

Men have fought the pounding waters and met a watery grave.

Well she tore men's boats to splinters but she gave men dreams to dream

Of the day the Coulee Dam would cross that wild and wasted stream."

"Well the world has 7 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 that king Columbia River and the big Grand Coulee Dam."

Below, supporters at a political rally for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders sing Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land"

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