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Roll on, Columbia

Roll on, Columbia, Roll On was written by folk singer Woody Guthrie as part of the Columbia River Ballads. The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) hired Guthrie in 1941 after Alan Lomax recommended him for the job of writing folk songs about the hydroelectric dams that were being built on the Columbia River. The result of this month long commission was 26 songs including Roll on, Columbia.

Bonneville Dam and Grand Coulee Dam were built on the Columbia River as part of the New Deal and were owned by the federal government. To facilitate the electricity from these dams the US Department of Energy created the BPA to sell and distribute the power. However, several counties began construction of their own dams on the Columbia, outside of the federal jurisdiction. The BPA launched a program to gain support for dam building in the Pacific Northwest and for federal regulation of the hydroelectricity. As part of this program they hired Guthrie to write these propaganda songs.

Guthrie was driven all around Washington and Oregon so the sites of the Columbia and her tributaries could inspire him. He was from Oklahoma and didn't know much about the Pacific Northwest. Guthrie was glad he was able to tour and get a feel for the area. He commented, "These Pacific Northwest songs and ballads have all got these personal feelings for me because I was there on these very spots and very grounds before."

Of the Columbia River songs Roll on, Columbia, a song about harnessing the Mighty Columbia to help farms and industry with electrical power, was by far the most popular. Because of the song's message and popularity, it was established as the official folk song of Washington State in 1987.


Roll on, Columbia, roll on
Your power is turning our darkness to dawn
So roll on, Columbia, roll on.

The song begins with the chorus and it is sung after each verse. The "darkness to dawn" bit talks about how hydroelectric power was bringing electricity to homes in rural areas, which had never had it before.

Green Douglas firs where the waters cut through
Down her wild mountains and canyons she flew
Canadian Northwest to the oceans so blue
Roll on Columbia, roll on

In Washington State and British Columbia, the Columbia River starts in the alpine forests of the Cascades and northern Rockies. The river runs from southern Canada to the Pacific Ocean at the border between Washington and Oregon.

Other great rivers add power to you
Yakima, Snake, and the Klickitat, too
Sandy Willamette and Hood River too
So roll on, Columbia, roll on

This verse talks about some of the Columbia's tributaries. These rivers themselves are fairly grand and they add to the Columbia's prowess.

Tom Jefferson's vision would not let him rest
An empire he saw in the Pacific Northwest
Sent Lewis and Clark and they did the rest
So roll on, Columbia, roll on

Thomas Jefferson's vision of Manifest Destiny, the idea that the United State would exstend from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, began to be realized when Lewis and Clark pioneered the Oregon Trail.

It's there on your banks that we fought many a fight
Sheridan's boys in the blockhouse that night
They saw us in death but never in flight
So roll on Columbia, roll on

As the settlers followed the Oregon Trail, they were met with a lot of resistance from the natives. This verse talks about a battle with a congress of the northwestern Indians tribes in the area surrounding Cascade Locks on the Washington bank of the Columbia. If the Indians had taken this blockhouse, they would have continued on into Oregon and to the Willamette Valley. However, they were stopped when Philip Henry Sheridan sailed across the river from Fort Vancouver with reinforcements and cannon.

At Bonneville now there are ships in the locks
The waters have risen and cleared all the rocks
Shiploads of plenty will steam past the docks
So roll on, Columbia, roll on

Bonneville Dam, the first dam built on the Columbia, had locks built into it so ships could navigate past it. There was a lot of concern that the dams would prevent the shipment of goods and passengers along the length of the river.

And on up the river is Grand Coulee Dam
The mightiest thing ever built by a man
To run the great factories and water the land
So roll on, Columbia, roll on

Grand Coulee Dam, the second dam built on the Columbia was the biggest slab on concrete in existence at the time of its construction. The electricity it generated was used in all sorts of industry and the water in Lake Roosevelt, Grand Coulee's reservoir, was used for irrigation.

These mighty men labored by day and by night
Matching their strength 'gainst the river's wild flight
Through rapids and falls, they won the hard fight
So roll on, Columbia, roll on

Construction of a river spanning dam is not easy. The river must be diverted while it's being built. The workers had to create channels for the water to flow around the construction site and make sure the areas would stay dry. For the time, building Grand Coulee and Bonneville was one of the greatest achievements of the United States.

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