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 Washington in 1987.
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.
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.
This verse talks about some of the Columbia's tributaries. These rivers themselves are fairly grand and they add to the Columbia's prowess.
Thomas Jefferson's vision of what came later to be known as Manifest Destiny, the idea that the United States 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.