Like thousands of other Dust Bowl refugees, Woody Guthrie migrated to California. He scraped by, busking for spare change, washing dishes, sweeping floors. In 1937, he got a job at a small radio station in LA. As his popularity grew, Woody mimeographed copies of his songs to mail to fans.
In his songbook, “Ten Songs for Two Bits,” Woody wrote: “In these ten songs you will hear a lot of music of a lot of races. Songs of every color. Every people loves and copies the songs and the music, the ideas, the customs, of all the other races. Songs like these soak into every wall, hall, factory, every hull of every ship, every hammer coming down on every anvil, every seed falling down into every row, every hand moving with a dust rag, a wheel, a lever, a dial, a handle, a button pushed…I have never heard a nation of people sing an editorial out of a newspaper. A man sings about the little things that help him or hurt his people and he sings of what has got to be done to fix this world like it ought to be.”
Woody would go on to write a thousand such songs, including “This Land Is Your Land,” a protest song in response to Irving Berlin’s patriotic hymn, “God Bless America,” which Woody felt glossed over the lop-sided distribution of wealth in America . “This Land is Your Land” was performed at the presidential inauguration last month—an appeal for unity. But Woody’s song reminds us that we have much work to do “to fix this world like it ought to be.”
A WPA worker receives a paycheck, 1939. Priority employment in the WPA went to those in need of relief.
Photo Credit: Courtesy National Archives
In his first Inaugural Address in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt confronted the Great Depression with a promise of “action and action now.” Fast forward 88 years. In the face of a worsening pandemic and a sliding economy, Biden made the same pledge: “In this moment of crisis,” he said, “we have to act now…. we cannot afford inaction.”
Biden has moved quickly to propose a supplement to Unemployment Insurance (UI), bigger cash tax credits and an extra one-time payout of $1,400. Many unemployed adults, however, don’t qualify for UI. Jobless workers without children will get little-to-no help from a larger Earned Income Tax Credit or Child Tax Credit. The extra $1,400 will only stretch so far.
President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins A close advisor to FDR, Hopkins was an architect of New Deal relief programs.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress
What Biden has not yet proposed is a large, federally subsidized jobs program. His “Build Back Better” plan calls for 18 million good paying jobs, mostly in infrastructure. But he has not yet presented Congress with specific legislation. The nation needs action and action now.
The New Deal’s jobs programs show the way. From the start, Roosevelt made clear that his “primary task” was getting unemployed Americans back to work.
In his First 100 Days, FDR created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and tapped Harry Hopkins to run it. He told the Washington newcomer: Get immediate and adequate relief to the unemployed, and pay no attention to politics or politicians. Three days later, Hopkins got to work and within an hour sent $5 million in cash relief to four million destitute American families.
Hopkins immediately recognized, however, that unemployed workers did not want a handout. They wanted jobs. FERA soon offered not just cash relief, but the opportunity to earn the same amount through work relief. Instead of a handout, it provided the dignity of employment.
Unemployment office, 1938 “Jobless men lined up for the first time in California to file claims for Unemployment Compensation.”
Photo Credit: Photo by Dorothea Lange. Courtesy, Social Security Administration
In November 1933, Roosevelt and Hopkins went much further. The experimental Civil Works Administration (CWA) offered the unemployed real jobs that paid the prevailing wage. Within a month, the CWA hired four million to carry out over 4,000 projects.
The program was temporary. Hopkins regretted its end in 1934. He saw the CWA as proof that unemployed Americans wanted to work and as the best model for providing them jobs until they could be absorbed into the regular labor market. With the CWA in mind, Hopkins lobbied for an Employment Assurance Corporation to serve as the employer of last resort.
The Social Security Act of 1935 lacked a permanent job assurance program. Nevertheless, FDR, who disfavored what he called “the dole,” told Congress: “Work must be found for able-bodied but destitute workers.”
Why Can't You Give my Dad a Job? 1937 Photo by Daniel HagermanPublic Domain
The result was the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which under Hopkins’ leadership provided millions of subsidized jobs over its seven-year run. The WPA ranks among the New Deal’s most successful programs. It might have lasted longer but for the nation’s shift to a wartime economy.
The New Deal’s history holds valuable lessons for the new Administration. “People don’t eat in the long run,” Hopkins said, “they eat every day.” The most powerful antidote to poverty is immediate employment and decent wages. With adequate earnings, most Americans can keep food in the refrigerator, avoid eviction or foreclosure and meet life’s other necessities.
So, here’s the deal, Mr. President. Just as FDR’s New Deal rested firmly on jobs programs like the CWA and WPA, your program to Build Back Better requires a large, permanent federal jobs program that will quickly put millions of Americans back to work—and by doing so, restore not only our economy but our faith in government as well.
Dr. June Hopkins is the granddaughter of Harry Hopkins, professor emerita at Georgia Southern University, Armstrong Campus, and author of “Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer.”
David Riemer is a Senior Advisor on the Workforce for Social Security Works and author of “Putting Government In Its Place: The Case for a New Deal 3.0.”
The Columbia River Songs Guthrie wrote 26 songs during in his employment at BPA.Public domain
Woody Guthrie and his guitar sat in the backseat of a Hudson Hornet. Elmer Buehler, who worked for the Bonneville Power Authority (BPA), sat behind the wheel. It was May, 1941 and they were headed north from Portland, Oregon through Eastern Washington along the Columbia River, marveling at not only the stark beauty of the Pacific Northwest, but also at how the government was forever changing the landscape with massive hydro-electric projects—the Bonneville Power Administration in the West, the Tennessee Valley Authority in the East.
Before he became the legendary folk singer, Guthrie was an itinerant left-wing songwriter looking for work. He was hired by the BPA, created by an act of Congress in 1937 to construct the facilities necessary to transmit electrical power from the Columbia River Basin and market that power to the region’s towns, cities and states.
Guthrie was 28 and the father of three when signed on to write songs about the great public power projects: dams, locks, spillways, irrigation systems, generators. Guthrie’s friend, Alan Lomax, best known for his field recordings of folk music for the Library of Congress, had suggested Guthrie apply for the job.
Farmers Poster The Columbia River dams brought electricity and irrigation to the Northwest.
Photo Credit: The Bureau of Land Reclamation
“He sat there at the administrator’s desk…” Elmer Buehler recounted of Guthrie’s audition…and strummed his guitar…I don’t think he was there a half an hour and Dr. Raver said, ‘You’re hired.’”
They couldn’t get him on the (permanent) payroll, so they hired him for 30 days,” says Gene Tollefson, author of ‘BPA & the Struggle for Power at Cost.’” Guthrie earned a total of $266.66, which worked out to about ten dollars a song.
Guthrie had an explosion of creative output during the month-long assignment, arguably, the most important in his artistic life. He turned out 26 songs. “I pulled my shoes on and walked out of every one of those Pacific Northwest Mountain towns drawing pictures in my mind and listening to poems and songs and words faster to come and dance in my ears than I could ever get them wrote down,” Guthrie would later recall.
Bonneville Dam under construction, 1939 Guthrie’s lyrics: “My children won’t run away to town since Bonneville brung the ‘lectric lights around.”
“Roll on Columbia,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” “Pastures of Plenty” and “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done” are but a few of the now iconic songs Guthrie managed to write down during his brief tenure as a federal worker.
New Dealers were adamant that the people would be better served if electricity was produced by the federal government rather than local power utilities. That idea, the BPA held, would be made more palatable to the public through song.
Scale Model of Grand Coulee Dam, 1938 The US Army Corps of Engineers was one of many federal agencies involved in the Columbia River Basin Project.
Photo Credit: University of Idaho Library Special Collections and Archives
Guthrie and Buehler drove along the blue ribbon of the river, stopping at construction sites and migrant camps, Woody writing about the benefits the dams would bring to the Northwest, songs later featured in the movie Columbia River Songs.
It had taken Guthrie but half an hour to get a job, but that job created music still as powerful today as the electricity that churns out of the Columbia River dams. Guthrie drew little distinction between the vast bureaucratic enterprise of harnessing the river’s power and the hardscrabble men and women making good money doing the hard and dangerous work.
Reviewing Greg Vandy’s 2012 book “26 Songs in 30 Days,” music critic Paul de Barros wrote: “Guthrie saw the Grand Coulee project as a Rooseveltian populist endeavor that would not only bring electric power to the people — much as the Tennessee Valley Authority project had — but also irrigate a gigantic “pasture of plenty” east of the Cascades, which could accommodate the Dust Bowl refugees whose plight he and John Steinbeck had brought into public focus.”
In “Grand Coulee Dam” Guthrie sings, “Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year Thirty-three/For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me/He said, ‘Roll on Columbia. You can ramble to the sea/But river while you’re ramblin’ you can do some work for me.”
The dams constructed on the Columbia permanently altered the character of the river.
Breaking Rock on Grand Coulee Dam site, 1938 Workers on the dam inspired Guthrie to write songs like “Jackhammer Blues.”
Photo Credit: University of Idaho Library Special Collections and Archives
Woody’s son, Arlo Guthrie, once said of his father’s month-long stint, “He saw himself for the first time as being on the inside of a worthwhile, monumental, world-changing, nature-challenging, huge-beyond-belief thing…It’s rare you get a chance to participate in something you know is bigger than you and your country.”
Buehler drove Guthrie drove back to Portland. Woody Guthrie went on to become one of the most influential folk singers of the 20th century. He wrote more than a thousand songs, including those penned along the Columbia River.
His music is bigger than him, bigger even than this country.
Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. He's written for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, National Parks Magazine, and Seattle Magazine.