Bill Murlin has spent the past 30 years with guitar in hand, singing the Columbia River songs Woody Guthrie wrote during his one-month visit to the Pacific Northwest, including Grand Coulee Dam, above, and other places during his work for the Bonneville Power Administration.
Photo by Sandy Bly
Thirty years after his discovery of Woody Guthrie’s lost songs, Bill Murlin collaborates on recording
Folk music has been a defining thread in the tapestry of Bill Murlin’s life. He started performing while in college in the 1960s. Today, at the age of 75, he continues to take his show on the road.
Bill favors the works of the late, great icon Woody Guthrie—especially the 26 songs the radical songwriter penned during his 30-day stint toiling for the U.S. government to promote public power.
Partly that is because unearthing a long-forgotten cache of Woody’s Columbia River songs became a labor of love for Bill in the 1980s. He helped tell the story of the time Woody worked for the Bonneville Power Administration—a mission that continues.
“It’s always been my dream to see to it that all 26 songs that Woody wrote for BPA got heard,” says Bill. “I’ve always wanted to get all 26 songs recorded before I die, or before I’m unable to perform anymore.”
Thanks to a young musician who grew up along the Columbia River, Bill’s 30-year dream is close to becoming a reality. Fellow folksinger Joe Seamons is carrying on Bill’s passion for Woody’s music, partnering with Bill and others to record—for the first time—all of Woody’s Columbia River songs.
In March, recordings were completed in Portland and Seattle. Now, Joe and Bill are raising funds to release the double album, titled “Roll Columbia.”
“I’ve been performing these songs for over 30 years,” says Bill. “Everything was familiar to me, even the really obscure songs. It really felt good to go into the studio and sit in front of those microphones and play them until we got it right.”
A Quest to Find the Story and the Songs
Born to a military family in 1941—the same year Woody was writing his Columbia River songs—Bill spent his childhood bouncing around the country, finally landing in Spokane, Washington.
After graduating with a degree in broadcasting from Washington State University, he spent 16 years working in Portland as a radio disc jockey and radio and television news reporter. In 1979, he joined BPA’s public information office. He created and recorded press releases for more than 300 radio stations, filmed news releases for television stations, and produced internal and external videos for BPA.
While working in BPA’s basement studio, Bill stumbled upon a file that launched his search for all 26 of Woody’s Columbia River songs.
Bill was vaguely aware Woody had written songs for BPA, but says he never thought much about it.
“That file showed that not only had Woody Guthrie written songs, but he had worked at BPA to write the songs,” explains Bill. “He was not under contract like you might expect, but he was actually an employee of BPA, which I found rather fascinating.”
That discovery led to a long search for the songs, and a calling to make them available to the public.
Having performed some of Woody’s most famous songs, Bill was driven to nose around looking for clues about Woody’s employment.
In 1981, Richard Reuss, a folklorist at Wayne State University, gave Bill a copy of a 1945 letter from BPA to Woody that contained the lyrics to 24 of the 26 songs Woody had written for them.
Excited by his discovery, Bill convinced his bosses that BPA should make a documentary film about the changing role of power in the Northwest, and include Woody’s original music.
“By then the Northwest Power Act had been put into place, which was changing the role of BPA big time,” says Bill. “The Northwest Conservation Act was the reason BPA expanded their role in conservation and in protecting fish. I wanted to produce a movie to show this changing role.”
The movie was made but never released. Bill notes it was produced by Homer Groening, the father of Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons.”
With BPA preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary, Bill again brought up the idea of using Woody’s songs. He was tasked with finding the two missing songs in the collection.
A BPA newsletter article Bill wrote about his search for the lost songs was picked up in a front-page article by The Oregonian.
“My world exploded,” says Bill. “For the next few weeks, I was interviewed by national television and radio shows, local news shows, even a news magazine from Germany. It was crazy. I started receiving all kinds of phone calls, postcards and letters from people all over with Woody Guthrie stuff.”
Sifting through the material led Bill to several rare recordings and material from a variety of sources, including acetate disks saved from the Vanport Flood in 1948 that contained the world’s only known recording of Woody singing “Roll On, Columbia”—a song he never recorded commercially.
Bill eventually located the final two songs. “New Found Land” was on an obscure album, “Bonneville Dam and Other Columbia River Songs;” “Grand Coulee Powder Monkey” came from a songbook, “The Nearly Complete Collection of Woody Guthrie Folk Songs.”
To celebrate BPA’s 50th anniversary, in 1987 Bill produced an album of the 17 recordings available of Woody’s songs. He later published a songbook with all 26 Guthrie songs—the first time that was done. It included a forward by Alan Lomax, a folk music historian and friend of Woody’s who had recommended Woody for the job.
An Odd Combination Proves Fruitful
Woody’s gig on the federal payroll started when the BPA sent a representative to California to meet him in May 1941. BPA was interested in making a feature-length film about the dams being built on the Columbia River. Federal officials thought a folk singer could help people connect to the public power story on an emotional level.
Excited about the prospect—but with no actual job offer—an unemployed Woody and his wife, Mary, packed their three children into a battered Pontiac and left Southern California for Portland and the vague possibility of writing songs for the film.
When Woody arrived with his guitar and family, he immediately impressed the BPA bosses, who took pity on him and gave him a 30-day contract as a temporary employee, paid at the rate of $266.66 a month.
Woody was expected to write a song a day, which he nearly did. He produced 26 songs in 30 days.
“It’s very significant that one of America’s greatest folk balladeers wrote some of his best material in this very short and very productive month,” says folk musician Joe Seamons. “If you look at his body of work and when he wrote things, this was kind of the apex of his creative life.
“He had done a lot of songwriting up to that point, and all the skills he had been honing as a writer and as a storyteller came together to allow him to write this fantastic batch of music.”
Although the film was never released, three of Woody’s songs recorded in a New York studio eventually appeared in a 1948 Bonneville Power Administration documentary, “Columbia.”
Woody recorded about a dozen of his songs in the basement of the BPA office in Portland, and recorded and released several of the songs himself. He published several more in songbooks.
However, much of his original material disappeared for decades—lost until Bill doggedly pursued false leads and dead ends to find it.
Forever Connected to the Guthrie Legacy
Woody’s music continues to have relevance in Bill’s life. He has performed Guthrie songs across the Northwest with several musical partners, including Woody’s son Arlo.
Most importantly for Bill, all 26 of Woody’s songs have been recorded—fulfillment of a 30-year dream.
Bill and Joe teamed with Portland-based musician and producer Jon Neufeld, gathering a host of other Northwest-based musicians for the sessions.
While many of Woody’s songs have entered the popular consciousness, “too many of them remain obscure,” Joe says. “There are some very obscure lyrics and songs included here that we’re very excited to be playing. They are being performed in the recording studio for the first time. That makes it pretty special.”
In 2009, Joe was awarded a Woody Guthrie Fellowship, which allowed him to explore the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York City.
Since that time, Joe has been interpreting Woody’s work and other Northwest folk songs with musical partner Ben Hunter and his band, Timberbound.
“Joe has shown, without a shadow of a doubt, that he has the passion for, and the scholarship for, the roots music, the history of the music of the Pacific Northwest and the Woody Guthrie music,” says Bill.
All that remains now is gathering funds to get the album out to find a new audience.
“This is extremely satisfying,” Bill says about finally seeing all 26 songs recorded. “It’s given me great pleasure over the past 30 years to be a part of this project. This will make it all feel completed.
“And what is even better is that now I am able to pass the baton on to Joe. He has the youthful enthusiasm and it makes me feel really, really good that this is going to carry on beyond me.”
For more information about Joe Seamons and the Roll Columbia project, visit www.BenJoeMusic.com.