Honoring Woody isnt as easy as it sounds
- Michael Munk
- Portland Tribune - Opinion
POST SCRIPT • Portland's attempts to give Guthrie his due have been thwarted in the past
Congratulations and Godspeed to Nick Sauvie and the Lents Neighborhood Association for proposing to name the Interstate 205 foot and bike path that leads through their neighborhood to the Columbia River for one of its most famous former residents (Rollin' in Woody's Shadow, July 30).
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie and his family lived in a rear apartment at 6111 S.E. 92nd Ave. for little more than a month in 1941, but as Steve Law's article makes clear, that was long enough to produce an explosion of music that, almost 70 years later, continues to evoke our river and region throughout the world.
I am delighted to join Woody's fans to urge our politicians to respond and honor Lents and the path with his name. But given Portland's history of reluctance to name its built environment for anyone other than pioneer robber barons, natural-resource speculators and other old white men, we should pay attention to how previous efforts to place Woody's name on local facilities have fared.
For although Pete Seeger sang Woody's 'This Land is Your Land' - including its often-censored verse - at President Obama's inaugural concert, and Woody appears on a U.S. stamp, he remains an untouchable 'Red' to some of Oregon's backward elements.
Law's article notes McCarthy-era efforts to destroy the original music Woody produced while on the Bonneville Power Administration payroll, as well as the heroic efforts of BPA employees Elmer Buehler and Bill Murlin to rescue the work from the witch hunters.
Woody Guthrie Circle
The first effort to honor Woody came when he was dying in 1967, when Interior Secretary Stewart Udall sent him a grateful government's official commendation for his 28 Columbia River songs and announced that the Bonneville Power Administration's Hood River substation would be named in honor of what Woody had done 'to make our people aware of their heritage and the land.' From 1967 to 2000, the Woody Guthrie Substation served the Hood River area.
But Woody's name did not sit well with some in Hood River, a community already notorious for removing Japanese-American names from its Honor Roll of World War II veterans. Local businessmen claimed it was disgraceful to flaunt the name of a 'communist' in their neck of the woods. They were forced to live with it until they got their chance in 2000, when the Hood River Electric Co-Op took over the facility from BPA. Then the co-op board hastily erased the offending name and thereby declared the insular culture of their community.
In renaming it for Willard Johnson, the co-op's first general manager, the board ironically overlooked a crucial fact: At the time of the original controversy, Johnson himself stood up in favor of naming it for Woody, going so far as to tell the opponents that the 'world would be better off with more Woody Guthries in it.'
The second effort to honor Woody came in 2001, again thanks to Bill Murlin. He persuaded the BPA to name the drive at its headquarters at 905 N.E. 11th Ave. 'Woody Guthrie Circle,' and rescued the original Woody Guthrie sign from benighted Hood River. Several impressive stones engraved with verses from his songs were erected around it, and his image was woven into a large tapestry just inside the building entrance.
Strangely, the dedication seems to have been conducted in secret without media coverage and its existence remains obscure to Portlanders eight years later. A contributing factor may be post 9/11 security concerns, as members of a recent bike tour of federally supported local art complained of being shooed away from the memorial by security guards who also barred photos.
It is not encouraging that these efforts to honor Woody had to be made by the federal government, while Portland and Oregon politicians stood silent. With the dust still settling over the bitter struggle on 39th Avenue/Cesar Chavez Boulevard, and with the Francis Murnane Wharf - Oregon's only official memorial to a labor leader - being neglected by the city, we encourage the people and their elected representatives to heed Nick Sauvie and the Lents community and step up for Woody's memory.
Michael Munk is author of 'The Portland Red Guide: Sites and Stories of Our Radical Past' (Ooligan Press, 2007) and a retired political scientist. He lives in Southwest Portland.