by Stewart Hendrickson

There is a wealth of songs of the Pacific Northwest. They tell of our history, labor and leisure, joys and sorrows. Some are old and traditional, others more recent, and some are still being written. It is difficult in this short column to give a complete overview. Instead, I will give a few examples and some sources where more songs may be found.

Perhaps the oldest PNW ballad is The Bold Northwestman. It tells of an event in 1791 where a group of natives attempted to capture a trade ship.

Come all you bold Northwestmen, who plough the raging main
Come listen to my story, while  I relate the same
‘Twas on the Lady Washington, decoyed as she lay
At Queen Charlotte’s Island, northwest of Amerikay.

Captain Kendrick and his crew managed to save the ship.

The number killed upon our deck that day was sixty good
And full as many wounded, as soon we understood.

Tradition is that a crew member wrote the ballad. I will say more about the Lady Washington later.

Roll on Columbia is the “official” Washington State Folksong. This was, of course, written by Woody Guthrie in the spring of 1941, after he was hired by the Bonneville Power Administration to write songs about the building of the Grand Coulee Dam.

Green Douglas firs where the waters cut through,
Down her wild mountains and canyons she flew.
Canadian Northwest to the ocean so blue,
It’s roll on, Columbia, roll on.
Roll on, Columbia, roll on. Roll on, Columbia, roll on
Your power is turning our darkness to dawn,
So roll on, Columbia, roll on.

The Old Settler (a.k.a. Acres of Clams), the “unofficial” Washington State Folksong, was written by Francis Henry of Pierce County around 1874. The last verse (sung to the tune of Rosin the Beau) is

No longer the slave of ambition,
I laugh at the world and its shams,
As I think of my pleasant condition,
Surrounded by acres of clams.

This was the theme song for a local radio show by Ivar Haglund in the early 1940s where he played guitar, sang songs, and told stories of the PNW. He had a small aquarium on Pier 54, and later added a clam bar and seafood restaurant named after the last three words of this song. Some 20 years after writing this song, the author wrote a sequel, which could have been sung at the recent WTO-Seattle protest.

Some say that this country’s improving,
And boast of its commerce and trade,
But measured by social enjoyment,
I find it has sadly decayed.

One of my favorite PNW songs is The Frozen Logger. This was written in 1951 by the late James Stevens of Seattlen, WA. He worked in logging camps as a youth and later wrote The Paul Bunyan Tales  based on stories he heard late at night in the bunkhouse. The original first verse differs somewhat from the popular recorded version.

As I sat down one evening in a timber town café,
A six-foot-seven waitress, to me these words did say
“I see you are a logger, and not a common bum,
For no one but a logger, stirs his coffee with his thumb.”

 In 1978, Joseph Vinikow and Glen Arthur Hughes from Fidalgo Island wrote Washington, Washington, a frivolous song they proposed as a new Washington State Song. It is to the Calypso tune of Jamaica Farewell  (as sung by Harry Belafonte).

Washington, Washington,
Come to the land of the Rhododendron.
We got the geoduck and the mountain range,
The aplet and the cotlet and the hydroplane!
They built a great rotunda (clap, clap)
Everybody got under (It’s raining!)
The founding fathers, with vision clear,
Named it after their favorite beer!

The late John Dwyer (1921-1997), a local authority on PNW folk music and a founding member of the Seattle Folklore Society and the Seattle Song Circle, had an huge repertoire of traditional folksongs, but was not above writing some of his own. The San Juan Pig (1978) tells the story of the “Pig War” on San Juan Island in 1859: 

Let me tell you of a story of a San Juan pig
It wasn’t much ‘cause it wasn’t very big
But it rooted in a garden and it nearly caused a fray
Between the King of England and the U. S. A.

He also put a poem by Emma Rounds to music as Ballad of the Merry Ferry.

Sing hey, and sing ho, and sing down-a-down derry,
Oh, what is so merry as missing a ferry?
A nice wintry morning so jolly and freezing,
A dear little cold keeps you coughing and sneezing,
And everyone mirthful and happy and gay,
As we all watch the ferry puffing away.

That is something we can all relate to in the PNW. He also wrote Notice to Mariners (1974), about a Bremerton ferry that ran aground in the fog after the captain mistook the sound of a cow for his foghorn echo (before radar and GPS).

The captain turned the vessel, still steering by the sound,
 And guided by that silly cow, the ferry ran aground;
 So all you Northwest sailors, give listen to me now,
 And when you cruise on Puget Sound, don't navigate by cow!

Finally, a song by Mikki Perry tells the fate of the Lady Washington (mentioned earlier in The Bold Northwestman). Actually, it is about a replica of the original ship, built in 1989 at Grays Harbor, WA. In 1991 she sailed from the Columbia River into Pasco, WA when (sung to the tune of The Greenland Whale Fishery)

They were one hundred feet
From the railroad bridge
When a green light turned to red
“Reverse engines, come about”,/ Ted cried out
“The bridge is coming down ahead” (brave souls)
“The bridge is coming down ahead”

It ends with

Oh Pasco is a dreadful place
It’s a land that’s seldom green,
Where the dust storms blow,
And the trains come and go,
But the tall ships are seldom seen (brave souls).
The tall ships are seldom seen.

These are only a few of many songs of the PNW. Phil Thomas, a founding member of the Vancouver (B.C.) Folklore Society, is a recognized authority on PNW folk songs and history. His book Songs of the Pacific Northwest (1979, Hancock Pub., Saanichton, B.C.) is a wonderful collection of songs with historical backgrounds, photos and maps. Linda Allen has two books of PNW songs: Washington Songs and Lore (1988, Melior Publications, Spokane, WA), written for the Washington Centennial Commission; and The Rainy Day Songbook (1978, Whatcom Museum of History & Art, Bellingham, WA). Linda has also written many songs about the PNW which are on her CD, Washington Notebook (sponsored by the Washington Centennial Commission and produced by Victory Music). Wes Weddell has a new CD, My Northwest Home, with original songs of the PNW based on his travels around Washington State.

Stewart Hendrickson is Chemistry Professor Emeritus – St. Olaf College, Research Professor Emeritus  University of Washington, and in his new career, an unemployed folk musician (voice, fiddle, guitar; Reprinted from The Victory Review, August, 2002.