thenextwave

Woody, hydro-power, and plastic

Posted in culture, future, music by thenextwavefutures on 2 March, 2008

Guthrie, not Allen. I was listening to his song “Talking Columbia Blues” today, and heard this verse – a future vision from the 1940s of how hydro-electricity would transform America.

You just watch this river, though, pretty soon
Everybody’s gonna be changin’ their tune;
The big Grand Coulee and the Bonneville dams
Run a thousand factories for Uncle Sam.
And everybody else in the world. Turnin’ out
Everything from fertilizers to sewing machines,
And atomic bedrooms and plastic —
Everything’s gonna be plastic.

(Full lyrics here.) Guthrie had been hired in 1941 by the Bonneville Power Administration to write songs for a film to promote the use of hydro power from the Columbia River in Oregon, although the film wasn’t released until 1949.

By the mid-1940s, it was pretty well-accepted that plastics was the future. In Frank Capra’s ‘It’s A Wonderful Life‘ (1946) Sam Wainwright makes his fortune in plastics, and offers George Bailey (the James Stewart character) the chance “to get in on the ground floor” – prompting one of Stewart’s more memorable speeches:

Now you listen to me. I don’t want any plastics and I don’t want any ground floors. And I don’t want to get married *ever* to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do.

And by the time Benjamin has the famous exchange in The Graduate, released in 1967, ‘plastics’ is used as a sign of how out of touch the older generation are.

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Just how do you mean that, sir?

By then, the future has become the past.

2 Responses

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  1. Eamon said, on 28 March, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    What’s the future now I wonder ?

  2. […] in the US every day. 2.4 million pieces of plastic enter the ocean every day. (‘Everything’s gonna be plastic‘ sang Woody Guthrie, 60 years ago). Each picture attempts to be a digital representation of a […]


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