Roll on, Columbia, roll on,
Roll on, Columbia, roll on.
Your power is turning
The darkness to dawn
So roll on, Columbia, roll on . , .

Woody Guthrie, 1941

Despite the title and the quoted lines, this is not, as the reader might suspect, about river ecology, at least not directly. Its title is an attempt to contain in a phrase some historical issues of our national life and their relation to the basic national character I identify as the Popular Spirit. That Spirit is the contentious but continuous spirit of change among us. I believe that such a definable Spirit materially exists, generated from popular convictions formulated in the Constitution and constantly reiterated in our long struggle to embody that ethical writ in the realities of our lives. I think that the action of the Popular Spirit is relevant to what has been happening in this election year, but mostly, I hope for conversation and follow-up writing on the idea of the Spirit itself. I start with Woody’s verse expression of the Spirit as a motive of change, illustrated in a beginning instance by the completion of Grand Coulee Dam in 1941-2.

Guthrie’s anthem, written in this writer’s early teens, and now the official folk song of the State of Washington, celebrates the completion of the Dam which ultimately fulfilled itself as a vast transformation of land and people, a transformation seen then as the marvelous and necessary union of technology and the public purpose. Today that grand transformation is confronted by the damage done to the once vast salmon runs which thirty years of dam building, joined with over fishing, have brought to near destruction—so ending a vital continuum of humanity and nature sustained on the river and its tributaries for thousands of years.

Undeniably tragic, and mitigating this tragedy is today an immediate issue between ecologists and the Bush Administration. Yet its harms are undeniably balanced against the prizes of irrigation and transforming electrical power, just as the near miracles of modern medicine are balanced against the failed, heavily advertised remedies that have too frequently done damage. This balance is what the myth of progress argues, justifiably within its own terms, and so the advantages developed by Grand Coulee have granted us relief from full response to destructive consequences in either prediction or hindsight. That myth surely maintains faith in the inevitability and rightness of technological change as a “given” of our way of life, especially in the service of social necessity. Relevant to this are Guthrie’s ballad, and the great promise of the dam building era.

Surely the necessity was real enough in the desperation of the 1930’s, when Woody Guthrie emerged as a voice of dispossessed and impoverished Americans, expressing unity, confidence and hope. His accomplishment in this is respected, even by those who can recognize Woody’s ballad as a device subsidized by government in its political battle from the mid -1920’s onward to overcome resistance to the great dams. A few words can detail the particular happening of, “Roll On, Columbia.”

After the completion of Bonneville dam in 1938, and in connection with the near completion of Grand Coulee in 1941, the Bonneville Power Administration produced a documentary film and hired Guthrie to write the songs that would help establish popular enthusiasm for the project against the resistance of private power interests. Guthrie wrote 26 songs in the thirty-day term of his government contract, one of which was “Roll on Columbia.”

The tenure of Guthrie’s contract and the number of songs he wrote in that short period, hardly argue the government’s (or maybe Woody’s) immediate concern with folk art, though that was produced in the best of the songs he wrote. Again, the music was needed to propagandize popular support for the hydroelectric program resisted not only by powerful private utilities, but also by the more settled and satisfied portion of the affected population along the Columbia shore. Such are the brief historical facts, well enough known. Some of less well known or less well recognized facts, involving wartime uses of the electrical grid from Grand Coulee, will be developed as I continue.

I am briefly interested first, in a metaphor that this “artless” artist produced in the first verse of his song. Specifically I mean his use of the “darkness to dawn” imagery, coupling the human experience of enlightenment with our common verbal tropes for human control, power and awareness, dawn—the coupling of power and wakening vision. I want to consider Guthrie’s work first in its relation to the produced public Spirit of the era in which it was written. I will develop limited aspects of the imagery as related to the Popular Spirit as I go forward, but my attempt to describe that Spirit at this point begins with a personal reflection—the responses of my life to the Spirit’s change as my sense of it in our Culture became conscious.

Whatever his aims in his government work, Guthrie was at his best, a gifted musical story teller, a folk poet, an important part of my child’s experience of the years of the Great Depression, and of things I loved or hated and feared in my limited segment of that cultural time. I realize today how important Woody’s songs were among the things I loved, and that I loved them because they represented for me the Spirit of a whole people who beyond their group differences, were seemingly bound together politically and ethically to “change things,” to create a new way of life in the name of National Progress. If we consider the term “National Progress” in a context different from ours, though bred from similar circumstances, that context occurring in Germany and Italy in these years and previously in the then USSR, we will understand that passionate social purpose, especially in times of crisis often breeds passionate human icons as leaders, not men of popular wisdom. It would seem obvious that a main difference in the U.S. occurred by the influence of our Constitutionally framed Spirit, as well as in the wisdom of the men and women who attended to it.

Though I little realized it then, that Depression era sense of American Popular Spirit consoled me against whatever it was that I feared in my own small world: the poverty of the days and the seeming powerlessness of the common people to change those things that Guthrie strove to overcome in such appeals to unity as his still popular, “This Land is Your Land.” Yet I saw too, and still value, the way those terrible circumstances opposed in his songs, somehow gave birth to more shared human concern between strangers than had existed before the Depression days, and in my own experience, more concern for the common suffering than has existed since. Out of this, then, with the songs, came my child’s sense of how emotionally powerful a sense of human necessity and cause could be. Still, I learned again, though much later in a university classroom, that the developing ideals of transformation represented in Woody’s songs were not as new as they seemed in those days of union struggle and proto-Marxism. Learning this was perhaps the first clear focus of what was, and still is, my sense of the Popular Spirit.

The birthing years of the American industrial revolution as it affected life and thought in New England, though less dire, were very like those that began the Pacific Northwest dam-building era, a century later. These likenesses were social changes promoted by a handful of the most brilliant men and women the country had produced, the “transcendental” dreamers of the tiny community of Concord, Massachusetts. Writing mainly n the 1830’s and 40’s, they echoed my remembered sense of the 1930’s in their fervent dreaming over the causes of Feminism and Abolition, later to find new fire the 1960’s Civil Rights era.

Even so, as Susan Cheever has recently reminded me in American Bloomsbury (Simon and Schuster, 2007), Concord was both to breed and to suffer the slaughter of Civil War a few years after its best dreams had been spun and its dreamers had fallen into beguiled admiration of the religious radical, John Brown. Then, in my time again, the same kind of conflict and irony came to affect the social reforms of the 1960’s—reforms generated by a vastly more complex America, but differing more in the scale of the changes pursued than their nature These were responses of a generation that had long since bred angst as action out of Jack Kerouac’s restless 1950’s struggle in the novels “On the Road” and “The Dharma Bums,” expressing a deeply troubled, but lyrical and passionate freedom of the self. It was a noisy, often obscene, “under thirty” self, but one nonetheless driven by a sense of crisis and longing for peace, and in that way I believe, one that became a popular predictor of the Spirit of the future.

It seems, as I think of it again now, that the Popular Spirit of Woody’s time had been carried strongly into the war that followed the Depression as an overwhelming public patriotic response to national need in World War Two. It continued as a strong, if differently troubled and less unified sense of commitment during the Korean “conflict” and the early “Cold War” period. It was expressed, and reunified, as the expression, especially of the young in the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s, as the rallying cry for a leveled standard of Race, Class and Gender affecting personal opportunity in the Civil Rights movement—Concord revisited, as I suggest above.

But following the nightmare series of the Kennedy and King assassinations in the 1960’s, the Spirit of working together toward a valued end lost coherence again, as if in shock. In the mostly destructive civil conflict generated by Vietnam, youth’s grand call for “Power to the People,” came to life as the reaction used against protesting youth by their own government.

The Church Committee investigations by the U.S. Senate (1975-77), broke secrecy on a series of “Cold War” motivated illegal and unethical acts involving the CIA and the FBI in violations of their supposedly separate roles, violations ranging from chemical mind control experiments to unwarranted espionage, culminating in the illegal union of the two agencies in a cohort styled “MKULTRA.” Ultimately, political imitation of such Security State tactics—I like to use the euphemism, ”Spook tactics” for these—designed to control popular dissent against the Viet Nam war, brought on the unprecedented 1974 resignation of the President. Unconstitutional government actions, illegally justified by Cold War fears, had grown to parallel and even to fuel drug-laced disorder and Spirit-suppressing reaction involving both the government and its citizens.

Even so, in these troubled days of the 60’s, Bob Dylan, seeming Woody Guthrie’s, inheritor, had became aneven greater celebrity than his predecessor. Dylan drew huge crowds to his performances, suggesting a moving and active popular Spirit still alive in music. That fact alone suggests that Woody’s metaphor was still tuned to a hopeful Popular Spirit, in times that were, and still are “a-changin.” The Reagan era, led by another celebrity turned politician, recognized the longing for change in his argument that “government is not the solution—government is the problem.” The “Reagan Revolution,” however, despite its wide popular appeal, did not seem to find much “Revolution” required against my described demon, the Security State, though the world did change dramatically with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Perhaps this was the moment at which the character of that Security State might have been altered—reducing the secrecy barrier between government and its people—but it did not. The practical arrangements of the “Cold War” continued, as new problems justifying its claims emerged.

Today, Americans opposing another government-driven, unpopular war seem to be expressing the Spirit, (or its traumatic reaction) in their dismay at the lack of a coherent leadership in dealing with the phenomenon of “terrorism” for what it truly is, a moral crisis within Islam—a crisis solvable only by Islam. The popular response to the grievous wound suffered by the United States, if I read the recent national Spirit correctly, is to require a justly balanced diplomatic and military action, springing from the Nation’s duty to defend itself and allied others, from the effects of group psychosis masked as religion. It also seems to favor thoughtfully curative changes in our own behavior, nearly as strongly as an ill-defined and in some ways self-destructive war against “Terrorism.”

Instead, what has been produced heals neither America’s wounds nor Islam’s in a program of fear-generating military rhetoric and ill planned action, the result being a depressed public Spirit, more and more repetitive of the Vietnam period. Again, we are all-powerful, but failing, both at war and at home, and the seeming lack of the power to change direction threatens catastrophe.

In the popular mood of anger at the war, it is this depressed and polarized Spirit which motivates a perceptible despair concerning the very institutions of government on which the Spirit, the national sense of popular identity, must depend. The disillusion is not limited to the Iraq war, I think. It can be argued that a Security-bound government’s behavior and attitude toward its people, extending from the opening of the Cold War through the recent public struggle to control phone and email espionage on private American citizens, has finally created a mood of angry frustration that is beyond politics. Unlike the hour of Vietnam, it is muted; perhaps because it remembers the chaos and violence of that time. But considered in terms of Woody’s musical celebration of common action, we are fallen into a dangerous cacophony of motives. Here I return to Guthrie’s opening river metaphor and its suggestion of popular power and enlightenment.

In historical hindsight, more aims than the development of irrigated land and public resources with Dam building must have been present from the late 20’s through the first two Roosevelt Administrations. The nation’s full involvement in World War Two six months after “Roll On Columbia” was written, must have borne a hidden, if necessary shadow under the wing of progress: the development of the desert stretch of land to be called the Hanford Reservation and the plutonium trigger of the bomb that transformed the history of mankind. The long consideration and construction period of Grand Coulee (1933-42), came to practical reality in the establishment of the Manhattan Project and the building of the first atomic bombs.

What I have called the myth of progress, then, takes a different shape in the ethical confrontation of two motives; the popularly understood and valued one, and after Pearl Harbor, the secret and imperative one. Atomic energy technology, barely out of its birthing period, was practically inevitable as an application to warfare. As the dam projects were being built as required props to reviving a stunned economy, they were also being foreseen as powerful resources against the growing likelihood of the Second World War and, by 1941, the German control of atomic research resources in Europe.

The result, in addition to the supply of hydroelectric power to war industry, was the ultimate weapon and the ultimate practice of military and political power in its physical forms. This was power changed from Woody’s idea, turned to a now literally blinding “vision” in the atomic flash. I do not argue against the immediate necessity of Hanford’s uses, but one can still doubt their ultimate contribution to human progress. The myth that helped “sell” the dams program had taken a strange turn from its popular image into the urgent framing of the war. So came into existence, I believe, the beginning phase of what in further writing, I will call “The Big Spook,” the development of a Security State of such complex dimensions that in the crisis of “9/11,” it could not creditably respond to its duties, and a complexity which shuts its citizenry out of its motives in ways that not only alienate the Popular Spirit but appear to threaten the Constitution—both that Spirit’s source and its material format.

I do not argue, of course, with the practical necessity of national security, but when that necessity becomes a dominating enterprise, it certainly poses a problem to democracy, even to democracy at war. I want to say more of this “Big Spook,” as I have called it, and of the new, especially the electronic weaponry which is just now beginning to emerge from its secrecy as a challenge not simply to American democracy, but to democracy throughout the world. Recently, as we all recognize, we have had a period of struggle over the right “protection” of our freedoms, and I believe, values of the Popular Spirit, the Spirit of the National Character, from which they are formed. I hope I have attracted readers in response.

Editors Note – We are happy to welcome Dr. MacLean to Blogger News. Dr. MacLean is the author of the award winning book The Mind Keepers.

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