A Portlander was there when legends were born one summer long ago

Folk singer Woody Guthrie was 28 when the Bonneville Power Administration offered him a month's work. It was 1941, and the agency's public relations department asked him to write a song cycle in praise of the hydroelectric plants being built along the Columbia River.

Some of those songs, including 'Roll on Columbia,' 'Grand Coulee Dam' and 'Pastures of Plenty,' have become classics and are taught in school.

Guthrie was paid $267 for the month, at government pay grade 9, which was generous. He set himself the target of writing a song a day.

It seems like ancient history, until you learn that the man who was charged with driving Guthrie around the region, Northeast Portland native Elmer Buehler, 91, is still alive.

The pair cruised the towns and tributaries of the mighty river for several weeks in the summer of 1941. Buehler drove the brand new black Hudson with government plates while Guthrie sat in the back.

'Lots of people called the office of the agency and said, 'I passed a government car driving between Arlington and Pendleton, with some guy in the back strumming a gee-tar Ñ what the heck is going on?' ' Buehler says.

The Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency that now markets wholesale electricity in the Northwest, was making a documentary, something between a propaganda film and a corporate video. It wanted a soundtrack to help sing the praises of the dams being built on the Columbia River and describe how the electrification and irrigation of the valley would help the common people.

The concept was right up Guthrie's alley. He was a left-leaning guitarist who had already used his experience as a Dust Bowl Okie to write songs about the Great Depression.

Guthrie's career was languishing when the call came. He was unemployed, with a wife and two kids to support, so he jumped at the offer, driving up from California to Oregon for the first time.

'I was told get out and show him the Oregon country because I've traveled in every community from Azalea to Zumwald,' Buehler says. They took one trip that lasted about a week and some shorter side trips.

Buehler remains a walking, talking time capsule. He has almost total recall, able to remember how many cents he paid for a slice of pie in 1929, 1949 or 1979, or which motel he and Guthrie stopped at on their Oregon odyssey.

He rattles off the places where he took Guthrie: the hop yards in Salem, a peach orchard on Grand Island É

'I showed him the wheat fields up in Morrow and Umatilla counties, and the Celilo Falls before there was a Dalles dam, where the Native Americans were dipping for salmon.'

Together they inspected the Bonneville Dam before the generators had been installed, and Guthrie went on to use his imagination to paint a word picture of rural towns getting their first electric lights and milking machines.

From 'Grand Coulee Dam'

Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of '33

For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me.

He said, 'Roll along Columbia. You can ramble to the sea,

But river while you're ramblin' you can do some work for me.'

Now in Washington and Oregon you hear the factories hum,

Making chrome and making manganese and light aluminum.

And there roars a mighty furnace now to fight for Uncle Sam,

Spawned upon the King Columbia by the big Grand Coulee Dam.

©Ludlow Music Inc. 1976

Courtesy of Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives

They often stopped at granges and chambers of commerce. Guthrie showed his fiery anti-business side when he was asked to play background music for a chamber of commerce dinner.

'He said, 'Background music? I wouldn't play background music, or foreground music, for any chamber of commerce,'' Buehler says.

'At Arlington, he played in the hotel in front of the registration desk, old ballads like 'O, Susannah,' a couple of his own songs, his country music, and things like 'I'm an Okie From Fanokie,' some damn song like that.'

A grip on his guitar

Buehler says his charge was terrified of losing his guitar:

'We'd go into these homey restaurants, and he wouldn't let me lock it in the trunk. He'd bring it in with him and look for a stool to strap it to, and it'd sit there in between us so no one could damage it or steal it.'

He took Guthrie to Lost Lake, 30 miles south of Hood River, and watched while Guthrie stood there, astounded.

'He said it was the most beautiful place he'd ever seen; it was heaven on Earth.'

Buehler and Guthrie didn't talk a lot because the musician was looking out the window for inspiration and strumming his guitar.

'I just pointed out the things that I thought were interesting to him, like Memaloose Island, which was a burial ground for Wascos, Klickitats and Umatilla Indians, and how Vic Trevett was the only white person buried on the island because he wanted to be with honest people,' Buehler says.

He says Guthrie wasn't just a serious, idealistic person. 'In fact, he looked depressed,' he says.

Later, Guthrie was targeted in the McCarthy era by anti-communists, but Buehler claims that was unfair.

'He said, 'I hear so much about the Communist Party, but what does the average person know how communism works?' He wanted to join the Communist Party, but they wouldn't trust him Ñ they figured that he talked out of both corners of his mouth. But his adversaries held it against him.'

'Get rid of that junk'

Because of Pearl Harbor, the film Guthrie wrote his songs for was never completed.

According to Michael Majdic, a media professor at the University of Oregon and a Guthrie specialist, 'The intent of the original film was to raise public awareness for the need for public power. After Pearl Harbor it was obvious to everyone that the U.S. needed all the power it could get.'

After the war came the 1948 Vanport Flood, when a dike on the Columbia gave way, sweeping away the community north of Portland where some 20,000 people were living.

The BPA, hungry for public support, released a version of the film that used Guthrie's songs. 'The Columbia,' as it was plainly titled, was a more generalized hymn to the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams.

However, when Dwight Eisenhower was elected president in 1952, the film was threatened again. Buehler's bosses asked him to destroy all copies of the films 'The Columbia,' 'Power Builds Ships' and 'Hydro.'

'They said, 'Get rid of all that junk,' ' Buehler says, referring to the newly installed administration and its anti-big-government attitudes. But he hid one mint copy of each film in his basement, deep in a wood pile, where they sat for 19 years. He eventually handed them back to a more sympathetic BPA.

The BPA retains copies of the three films, which can be copied to VHS on request. Far less hassle to obtain is the documentary made by Majdic with his colleague Denise Matthews called 'Roll on Columbia: Woody Guthrie and the Bonneville Power Administration,' which is available on video through the University of Oregon's Knight Library.

As Guthrie grows in stature as as one of the most influential folk singers of the last century, the memories of Elmer Buehler will only become more valuable.

From 'Roll on Columbia'

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.

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.

©1963 Ludlow Music Inc.

Courtesy of Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives

Contact Joseph Gallivan at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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