His official start of employment was May 13, but on May 12, 1941, folksinger Woody Guthrie arrived at the door of the Bonneville Power Administration in Portland, Oregon. After traveling from Los Angeles with his wife and three children, chopping wood for gas money along the way, Guthrie was desperate for work. Through a unique relationship between the legendary songwriter and a federal power marketing agency, Guthrie’s work for BPA would result in a rich collection of songs about the Columbia River and the benefits new federal hydroelectric dams would bring to the people of the Northwest.
The story began a few weeks earlier, when BPA Information Officer Stephen B. Kahn decided he needed a folksinger who could add a grassroots feel to a remake of BPA’s 1939 film “Hydro.” With a referral from Alan Lomax at the Smithsonian Folklore Center, Kahn sent Gunther V. Fritsch, the film’s producer, to visit Guthrie in LA and see if he might be right for the job. The remake of “Hydro” would still portray the building of the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams, the benefits and potential for growth that hydropower would bring to the Northwest, but the soundtrack would feature folksongs about the river and the work being done, in addition to excerpts from the original score performed by the Los Angeles Symphony.