Roll On Columbia

Words by Woody Guthrie, 1940; tune based on "Goodnight, Irene" by Huddie Ledbetter, 1936

In 1940 when this song was written, how long had electrical power been readily available in US cities? About forty years. What sources of energy were rural areas using? What electrical conveniences were rural areas missing out on? Lighting, radio, heating fuel, labor-saving automation. Why was electrifying rural areas so far behind? Low population density made it unprofitable. How much did this disparity contribute to migration from rural to urban areas?

Why did rural electrification need selling? R.E.A. provided low-interest loans to farm cooperatives to build power plants and lines, but the cooperatives still had to do the rest. What benefits of the dam does this song point out? Power for light, manufacturing, navigation.

Thirty or forty years after Woody Guthrie wrote this song, ecologists discovered that many of the electric dam projects on wild rivers had serious environmental consequences. If Guthrie had known this in 1936, do you think he would have written the same song?

Compare this song with "This Land is Your Land," another song by Woody Guthrie. How are the two songs similar? How do they differ?

"Roll On Columbia" performed by Woody Guthrie on Columbia River Collection, Cambridge, MA: Rounder Records [CD1036], © 1987. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.


Woody Guthrie (1912–67) was a folk singer and songwriter. Guthrie's usually wrote words to fit tunes he already knew, as with this song. He was once asked to sing a song that was not political. He answered that he didn't know any that were worth singing!

For more information on Woody Guthrie, see the Recommended Recording notes for "Hobo's Lullaby" (this unit).

Rights have not been secured to reprint the words for this song. Please consult this online source:

Light - Rural electrification administration / Beall.
Light - Rural electrification administration / Beall.

Woody Guthrie (1912–67) (born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie) was raised in an unstable family. His father was an alcoholic and his mother was committed to an insane asylum when he was 14. Guthrie avoided school and taught himself music, living most of his life as a hobo, working odd jobs, or singing in the street for money.

In 1940, when Guthrie was 28 years old and living in California, the Bonneville Power Administration in Portland, Oregon, hired him to write songs for a planned documentary film. The B.P.A. needed to promote construction of a massive dam along the Columbia River on the Oregon and Washington border along with the concept of public power under the New Deal's Rural Electrification Administration (R.E.A.). Although the film was eventually abandoned, the song became the official folk song of the State of Washington, where public power was accepted more readily than in Oregon.

Sheridan's Boys: Phillip Henry Sheridan, a former Union general, was put in charge of confining the Great Plains Native Americans to reservations. In the late nineteenth century, during a battle with a congress of Northwestern tribes in the area surrounding the Cascade Locks on the Washington bank of the Columbia, Sheridan sailed across the river from Ft. Vancouver with reinforcements, preventing the Native Americans from entering Oregon. Sheridan purportedly said, "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead."

blockhouse: a detached fort blocking access to a landing, channel, mountain pass, bridge, or other strategic point.

Find Sears or Montgomery Ward mail-order catalogs from the 1930s and look for appliances that would be used before and after rural electrification. How much would it cost to replace the basic appliances with electrical appliances? What would be your first-priority electrical devices to add to a newly electrified house?

Write a radio ad to try to get rural consumers to buy some of these products. Act out the ad with music and sound effects.

J. R. Williams, “Born Thirty Years Too Soon,” Rural Electrification News 1, no. 12 (August 1936): 24.



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