Friday, August 14, 2020
Aug. 14, 2020

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Off Beat: Dam song beloved by many, but not dam staff

Bonneville book spurs employee’s memories of Woody Guthrie tune 'Roll On, Columbia'

By , Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter

Woody Guthrie’s song about Bonneville Dam will live forever in the memories of just about everybody who has heard “Roll On, Columbia.”

That certainly includes many of the people who worked there. They’ll never get the dam song out of their heads.

That glimpse into the lives of Bonneville employees stems from Pat Barry’s book, “Bonneville Lock and Dam: A Gift from the People of the Great Depression.”

The Vancouver resident managed the Bonneville Visitor Center for 27 years. People who have worked at Bonneville since the 1930s provided some of his material. Even after its publication, Bonneville employees have enjoyed sharing their memories with Barry.

So, when he made a recent presentation at the Fort Vancouver Visitor Center, a former Bonneville worker was remembering the song that would roll on and on and on.

Did You Know?

Vancouver made “Roll On, Columbia” the city’s official folk song in 1985. Two years later, the Legislature made it the state folk song. (The official state song is “Washington, My Home,” by Helen Davis.)

“The public loved it. The maintenance staff hated it,” retired carpenter John Wheeler said.

Guthrie recorded “Roll On, Columbia,” in 1941 when the Bonneville Power Administration hired him to write songs promoting hydropower.

The 26 songs he wrote in 30 days are collectively known as “The Columbia River Songs.” Guthrie earned $266, Barry said, or about $10 a song.

“Roll On, Columbia” was used for several years to welcome people to the visitor center at the navigation lock. The recording “was triggered by a motion detector,” Barry said.

The center drew hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. A place that popular also needed upkeep and maintenance.

And if carpenters were working on the door itself, Wheeler said, they would reach their threshold for that song long before they finished the job.

Barry also got a story from one of the fish counters. They watch through an underwater window as fish swim up the fish ladder. Electronic keyboards have replaced the mechanical counting devices, but his source was there during the count-and-click years.

Some visitors were watching — and listening — as she tallied the traffic swimming upstream. She overheard one say: “Every time you hear a click, she lets a fish through.”

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.

Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter