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Students to seek removal of state folk song "Roll on, Columbia"


Students at Lake Roosevelt Junior-Senior High School intend to petition the state Legislature to reject the state’s official folk song because its original lyrics contain references they consider racist.

Seventh-grade students studying state symbols in Washington state history were upset when they recently heard lyrics in Woody Guthrie’s seminal “Roll on, Columbia,” which are not listed in the Secretary of State’s web page about the song.

Written just after Guthrie had seen Bonneville Dam on his month-long commission from the Bonneville Power Administration to write songs extolling the dam building on the Columbia River in 1941, the original song refers to hanging “every Indian with smoke in his gun,” after an 1856 attack on settlers in Oregon. “The Injuns rest peaceful on Memaloose Isle,” in another verse refers to islands in the Columbia between Oregon and Washington that were the final resting place for the dead, most of which would be inundated.

“We were listening to the lyrics and said ‘wait a minute,’” explained Pam Johnson who teaches seventh-grade language arts and social studies.

The seventh graders had been learning about state symbols, including state songs, as the song played in class.

They’ve also been learning about the legislative process and came up with a hundred topics about which they cared enough to write to state legislators, from guns to fixing streets.

Those offending verses, the sixth and seventh in a recording of Guthrie, come before Guthrie mentions Grand Coulee Dam, “The mightiest thing ever built by a man to run the great factories and water the land” in the ninth and final verse.

“This is coming from the kids,” Johnson said of her students’ desire to push for official removal of the song from the state’s list of symbols via a petition.

She said they plan to compose a petition, get it started locally, then approach students in other school districts about joining in the effort.

“Due to the racist terminology (‘injuns’) and the content, we respectfully request that the Washington State Legislature act as soon as possible to eliminate this song as the state folk song,” states a partial draft of the petition.

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