Roll on Columbia

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"Roll On, Columbia, Roll On" is an American folk song written in 1941 by American folk singer Woody Guthrie, who popularized the song through his own recording of it. One of the most popular songs in the history of the United States, it is paean to the harnessing of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest to help farms and industry through federally-built hydroelectric power facilties. It became famous as an anthem about American public works projects arising out of the New Deal in the Great Depression.


The song was part of the Columbia River Ballads, a set of 26 songs written by Guthrie as part of a commission by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the federal agency created to sell and distribute power from the river's federal hydroelectric facililities, in particular the Bonneville Dam and Grand Coulee Dam. At the time, the agency was facing a controversy because several counties in Washington and Oregon had begun construction of their own dams on the Columbia, outside of the federal jurisdiction. On the recommendation of Alan Lomax, the BPA hired Guthrie to write a set of propaganda songs about the federal projects to gain support for federal regulation of hydroelectricity.

As part of the effort, Guthrie, who was from Oklahoma and knew little about the Pacific Northwest, was driven all around Washington and Oregon to gain inspiration from the sites of the Columbia and its tributaries. Guthrie was glad he was able to tour and get a feel for the area, commenting that "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 Ballads "Roll on, Columbia" was by far the most popular. Because of the song's message and popularity, it was established as the official folk song of the State of Washington 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 phrase "darkness to dawn" is a reference 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

The Columbia River rises in British Columbia, 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 extend from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, began to be realized when the Lewis and Clark Expedition reached the mouth of the Columbia in 1805.

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

Later in the 19th century, when white settlers followed the Oregon Trail westward, they were met with resistance from the Native Americans. This verse talks about a battle with a congress of the northwestern 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 of concrete in existence at the time of its construction. The electricity it generated was used in many kinds 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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