OPB airs ‘Vanport’s Flood’ story— which Skanner and I broke —but doesn’t credit
On January 13, Oregon Public Broadcasting aired a long, eight-minute segment on Think Out Loud by Dave Miller about the “resurfaced” Woody Guthrie song, “Vanport’s Flood.”
The segment draws heavily from my story about the song The Skanner News broke just before Christmas, and interviews two sources from the Skanner article, yet doesn’t link to, or credit, newspaper or author.
Both of Miller’s sources, musician and Guthrie expert Joe Seamons and Portland Community College professor James Harrison, mention me and the Skanner, however.
“Only because of Thacher’s recent article in the Skanner that’s all about the song, did I discover that Ludlow Music had published a version of it in 1963,” Seamons says.
“I found out about it about two months ago when Thacher contacted me and said that he was doing some research on it,” Harrison says.
Miller’s segment is a nice deepening of the issues, starting with a fiery, folksy rendition of the tune by Seamons singing and playing banjo — a Pete Seeger-esque ditty with Seamons’ gravelly voice spot-on. (Seamons chose to sing Guthrie’s original lyrics, not the ones from the 1963 Ludlow Music sheet music that included a melody and chord structure for the first time.)
However, Miller should have given credit to, or at least linked to, The Skanner News, a black-owned newspaper distributed in Portland and Seattle that often includes stories affecting poor people and people of color.
My full name should have been included, because my first name was.
Ironically, this could have been OPB’s news to break. During the reporting phase of this story last fall, I left a voicemail for OPB News Director Anna Griffin. I thought OPB might be the perfect place to break the news, since OPB had covered it before, and the radio format could let a musician like Seamons perform the tune. Heck, I’m a professional musician, I’ve been on air many times and could have helped produce it.
Griffin never even returned my phone call.
Bernie Foster, publisher of the Skanner News, did. He published it right away and paid me on time to boot — something I’ve struggled with in writing for larger-circulation, white-owned Portland newspapers.
Let me give credit where due. Ironically, it’s Griffin’s former employer, the Oregonian, who deserves initial credit. While stories like this are hardly “news” to people like retired BPA archivist Bill Murlin, who still owns a copy of the 1963 songbook “The Nearly Complete Collection of Woody Guthrie Folk Song” in his Aloha house, and which he pulled out and read from while on the phone with me, most Vanport experts, like Harrison, Ed Washington, Vanport Mosaic’s Laura Lo Forti and others I interviewed, knew nothing about it.
Most younger people, whose love for Woody Guthrie shows no signs of decreasing in the Age of Trump, also knew nothing about it.
I discovered the song’s existence while surfing the Oregonian’s archives online using the Multnomah County Library portal. A February 2, 1969 article by Dave Johnson contains the line “Guthrie wrote a song about the Vanport flood, but it apparently had not [sic] connection with the film or his Bonneville songs.” Chewing on that led to calls and emails to the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which led to the story.
For me, credit is due to Bernie Foster, the Skanner publisher, for seeing the value in this story and running with it.
And the Skanner’s Christen McCurdy, who did a nice edit.
As Harrison points out in the OPB segment, Vanport was about three-fourths white. Yet Portland’s black community has most closely embraced the story of the Vanport Flood.
Perhaps, just as prejudice has led white people to view biracial people like President Barack Obama as “black,” even though they’re 50 percent “white,” the black community’s embrace of Vanport is a product of the multiple waves of displacement of the black community Ed Washington talked about when I interviewed him. The fifth of these waves is happening right now, and some say it’s the worst because it’s atomizing the African-American community more than the first four.
It’s fitting, then, that it was The Skanner News that published the story.