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A unique collaboration: BPA and Woody Guthrie
7/27/2012 12:00 AM
It's an odd professional combination by today's standards: a Dust Bowl-born radical songwriter and a Northwest-bred federal power agency.
But when Woody Guthrie met BPA in 1941, creative sparks flew.
The musical electricity that resulted is still heard, thanks to a BPA employee named Bill Murlin and his quest to rekindle the embers of a lost legend in the 1980s.
The story began in May 1941, when Guthrie was hired on a one-month contract to speed-write music for a BPA film on the new Columbia River hydro system.
"They couldn't get him on the (permanent) payroll," says Gene Tollefson, BPA retiree and author of "BPA and the Struggle for Power at Cost." "So they hired him for 30 days. And he wrote a song a day."
The month's work paid only $266.66, a monumental bargain for a 28-year-old songwriter at the peak of his powers. It was the year after Guthrie had written a song he renamed and released in 1944 as "This Land Is Your Land," America's unofficial anthem.
With a BPA driver at the wheel of a black Hudson, the tumbleweed troubadour swept up and down the Columbia Gorge, a dust storm of song ideas billowing behind him. The mind-boggling sight and story of the two new dams - whose gray, elephantine sides crawled with workers in an era of desperate unemployment - set Guthrie's songwriter brain afire.
For 30 days, he sang, he smoked, he toured, he typed. His legendary creative turbines spun at full capacity as he witnessed first-hand the ways hydroelectricity would elevate a hardscrabble life for so many in the Northwest.
The pictures and words from that trip were "faster to come and dance in my ears than I could ever get them wrote down," he said.
Indeed, BPA information officer Steve Kahn said Guthrie almost vibrated as the ideas flowed through him - he'd clasp a metal disc and beat out rhythms on the leg of his metal desk at the old Northeast Oregon Street headquarters as he wrote. (It's said he got relocated from the second floor to the basement early on for disturbing others.)
When Guthrie was done, he'd fulfilled his contract with 26 song lyrics, a dozen recordings and new arrangements of old American melodies put to colorful original lyrics - "Roll On, Columbia," "Pastures of Plenty," "Grand Coulee Dam." He recorded 11 of the songs in BPA's basement; three songs he recorded in a New York studio eventually appeared in the agency documentary "The Columbia."
"The Pacific Northwest is one of my favorite spots in this world," he declared.
Then he was gone as quickly as he'd come, off to New York, his car repossessed, his marriage over, his wife and kids going back to Texas without him, his focus turning to using his guitar as a "machine to kill fascists" in a world war.
The story of Guthrie's wildly productive month along the Columbia was forgotten. After the war and the political tensions of the McCarthy era, his stint at BPA shrank in the rearview mirror to a few grainy words at the end of an old government film in a file cabinet.
Arlo Guthrie (left) performs with BPA's Bill Murlin at a 1987 concert to celebrate BPA's 50th Anniversary.
Four decades later, that's where Bill Murlin came across it. His workplace epiphany would raise the agency's profile around the world and draw two of Guthrie's children to BPA to honor their father's work.
If you were going to order the perfect Woody Guthrie detective, the lanky, laconic Spokane native would be straight from central casting. Murlin combined the chops of a professional folksinger with the skill set of a broadcaster - an ear for sound coupled with a nose for news. He'd been performing Woody Guthrie songs since college in the 1960s, the perfect preparation for his starring role in uncovering a wealth of missing material.
By the time Murlin came to BPA in 1979, he'd already spent half a lifetime with the tools of a traveling storyteller on his shoulder - from radio recorders to film cameras to his oversized folk guitar ("the dreadnought," he says, "one of the biggest damn guitars out there").
So if Guthrie's iconic presence slid right past everyone at BPA for decades, it wouldn't elude Bill Murlin.
Murlin's first job at BPA was running the "radio boiler room," a one-man operation to produce, narrate and deliver BPA news by telephone (with the help of 20 volunteers) to 300 radio stations in four Northwest states. He worked with Ann Skalicky, a Public Affairs staffer who kept early BPA films, many depicting construction projects, in her tall metal file cabinet. Murlin liked to open it and "look at the movies every once in a while."
One day he was screening the 1948 film "The Columbia" as background for his own BPA film work. Professional curiosity made him watch it to the very end, where he encountered one name he never expected to see on a government movie.
He halted the reel for a second look and thought, "Cool! I didn't know that Woody Guthrie had worked for the government - or BPA."
He rummaged through another cabinet and located a file labeled "The Columbia." Inside were some 40-year-old documents and employment records -- "the first solid clues to Guthrie's BPA employment," Murlin says.
His next breakthrough came from a music scholar in Michigan, who provided a 1945 letter from BPA to Guthrie's family with the lyrics to 22 of the lost songs. Murlin wrote an article on the find and his search for BPA's Circuit newspaper.
The article wound up making quite a leap out of the building. "On a Monday morning, the story turned up on the cover of The Oregonian above the fold," he says. From there, the news went across the country, and to Europe via the BBC.
The quest for any trace of Guthrie singing his BPA songs became a labor of love that Murlin kept alive via snail mail and landline. Although it proved painfully slow going, with many false leads and dead ends, along the way, he picked up the assistance of folk legend and Guthrie friend Pete Seeger.
Eventually, persistence paid off - Murlin hit paydirt, finding Guthrie's voice at opposite ends of the West Coast. One find came from a San Diego newspaper editor who had worked at BPA a few years after Guthrie (and nearly lost his Guthrie collection in the 1948 Vanport flood). The other key discoveries came from a fan on Washington's Olympic Peninsula and an Associated Press reporter in Portland. Each of the three had the rarest of the rare, a vinyl or acetate disk bearing a different assortment of the missing cuts - among them, the only recording of Guthrie singing "Roll On, Columbia."
"I said, �Manna from heaven, a gold mine,'" Murlin says. "I never anticipated that I would find unpublished recordings of Woody Guthrie singing his own Columbia River songs."
In spite of media attention, those three records - none commercially made, each akin to a mixtape of their time - were the only surviving record of Guthrie performing selections from his BPA songbook that ever surfaced.
Murlin achieved his goal: The recovered music was widely shared for BPA's 50th anniversary. A commemorative album of Guthrie performing 17 of the songs was released, later accompanied by a songbook containing a lovingly, passionately written forward by folk historian Alan Lomax, Guthrie's dear friend and admirer who had recommended him for job at the BPA.
The unearthing of a pop-culture icon in BPA history gave people inside and out new cause for pride.
"That's one of my favorite stories of my life at Bonneville," says former acting Administrator Jack Robertson, who in 1987 accompanied Murlin to present the six fragile acetate copies of Guthrie's BPA recordings to the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
"I don't think the government has ever gotten a better investment for its money," Kahn told The New York Times.
Today, Murlin is a Bonneville retiree. After half a century, he still performs with his college friend Carl Allen in the folk group The Wanderers, and they still sing Woody Guthrie.
When Murlin has occasion to call BPA during its 75th year and happens to get put on hold, he might hear a familiar twang, followed by some lyrics close to his heart:
"...In the misty crystal glitter of that wild and windward spray.." ("Grand Coulee Dam")
And Murlin will say to himself, "Cool!"
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