Youthful prejudices surface yet again… Going back to Pete Seeger’s Gazette LP, I was surprised to find “Roll On, Columbia,” since I thought it was something I’d learned in elementary school music classes, along with “This Land Is Your Land,” and had filed it among the wildly overdone Woody songs that I’d better avoid. But, since I was doing a bunch of other songs of that LP, I figured I’d give this a try, and realized why it got overdone… it’s so much damn fun to sing.
Plus, singing through the verses, I remembered the thrill I got when I first traveled through the Columbia River Gorge, recognizing all those names from Woody’s song: Bonneville, Hood River, the Snake River…
It was 1980, and I was seeing it the right way, riding a freight train out of Portland. I did most of that trip with a black hobo named Joe, and skin color provides a punchline to this story — because that was about five months after Mount St. Helens erupted, the ground was still covered with ash, we were riding a flatcar, and by the time we reached Pasco we were both the same uniform shade of gray.
Fortunately, Joe knew a flophouse near the yards in Pasco where we could get showers — but that showed me one of the disadvantages of riding the rails: it’s more picturesque than hitchhiking, but you get into town looking like you’ve been riding a freight train.
Speaking of race… while researching these notes, I listened to Woody’s recording, and realized that I have no memory of ever hearing it — in particular, I have no memory of the patriotic verse about US troops executing Native American captives:
Remember the trial when the battle was won,
The wild Indian warriors to the tall timber run,
We hung every Indian with smoke in his gun;
Roll on, Columbia, Roll on!
Which I guess goes to show that even a dedicated leftist who by then had become an ardent believer in civil rights for black Americans could revert to his white Oklahoma pioneer youth… or that taking a job writing propaganda for US government engineering projects can short circuit someone’s other beliefs… (Woody wrote this one on a government contract, and was being provided with background materials by other people involved in the project.) It’s a pretty weird anomaly in his repertoire, and I just called Woody’s biographer, Ed Cray, to get his thoughts, and he was as nonplussed as I was. I also talked to Joe Seamons, who has been working on a project about Woody’s Bonneville Power Administration songs, and he suggested that someone else may have contributed the Indian-killing verses, as well as the one about Tom Jefferson’s empire-building vision. I’m guessing Woody probably wrote them, and he certainly sang them, but we all owe Pete Seeger a debt for intelligent editing of the version we sing today.