“Our River” - Background

Willie Levenson, Willamette River Activist and Ringleader of Human Access Project (HAP), thought the Willamette River needed a song. One that could become an anthem for the Human Access Project. Although the Willamette River watershed is home to 65% of Oregon's population, there does not appear to be any songs devoted to the Willamette River.


How I came to write a Willamette River song

by Willie Levenson

I was brainstorming for how I might be able to help facilitate the creation of a song about the Willamette River. I felt like the Willamette River needed a song, and there was not one to be found as far as I could find.  Further, even if there was a song, I felt our city needed a Willamette River song for today, which reflects Portland’s current relationship with its river.  I was thinking I could approach local musicians and maybe pair them up with poetry about the Willamette River to see if it might inspire them that was really kind of my best idea to make a song happen.


I was in Maui on January 27th, 2014, the day Pete Seeger died. When someone “important” dies, news media gives you a chance to learn a whole lot about that person in a short stuffed period of time. What I learned, and was reminded of, was that Pete Seeger was a joyful, inclusive person who loved to inspire and teach. His activism ranged from human rights to the Hudson River, his activism was driven by the power of music and storytelling. Pete engaged people to sing as a catalyst for meaningful change. This inspired me a great deal. I considered my own relationship with Pete, growing up listening to his music in records and from my dad playing his songs on the banjo.  Perhaps the idea to have a Willamette River song subconsciously came from growing up “with Pete around.”


The next brilliant, sunny Maui morning I woke up and it occurred to me, “I am on vacation, I have nothing better to do, I am going to write a song about the Willamette River.”  I was surprised how easy the first draft was to write.  I am passionate about the Willamette River and think about the river all the time. It felt great to get some of these thoughts off my chest and play with the message, I felt no shortage of ideas to pull from.  I then emailed the draft song to my good friend and favorite collaboration partner, Tom (T-Bone) Vandel, back in Portland, who is also a board member of Human Access Project.  Tom had some great edits and ideas as he always does. Then a melody presented itself to me and voila, there was a song.

I am a VERY beginning guitar player. The song consisted of just the few guitar chords I know. From there I retuned the lyrics with Tom over the next few months and slowly started playing it for friends. As someone who has never written a song, and never played in front of people, this alone was quite a vulnerable stretch for me. I suddenly was calling up friends who play music to help with the song – it opened a new world of expression to me that was a completely unexpected consequence of writing the song.


For anyone who has presented an expression of themselves to people for the first time, it is an interesting experience.  Of course you open yourself up to judgment as you share your expression and walk that tightrope above the flame.  The cool thing was that everyone was extremely supportive, particularly my wife Pamela who assured me that the song did not suck.  From there, I reconciled my relationship with this song and began performing it. First, the song will not be a chart topper, and that certainly doesn’t matter. Second, the Willamette River does not have a song and needs one.  Third, if the community at large or anyone thinks the song is terrible, I will encourage them to write their own song. We cannot have too many people singing about the Willamette River.


One morning on my back porch, I was playing the song and felt some creative tension. I was tired of keeping my song in a box. I needed to sing it and get it out there. I had a fundraising meeting scheduled for that afternoon. I decided, it was time to break out the song. When I brought my guitar along that afternoon I told the two people I was meeting with that “we would see how the meeting went, and I might play them a song at the end”. I realize now they didn’t think I was serious.

The presentation went really well and at the end I told them, “Now I will play you my song”. It turns out they had never had a meeting in their corporate offices where they were sung to (what a shame, right?).  I broke out my guitar in front of these strangers in a corporate conference room and played and sang my song for them. It will always be remembered as one of the most freeing, thrilling moments of my life.


I didn’t have the confidence in myself and in my guitar skill to play with my head up (still don’t), so I was kind of underwater as to the stunned audience reaction while I was playing. At this point I think the three of us in the room understood there was a “social contract” between us. I am doing this sort of unusual thing and they are going to roll with it.

Half way through the song a random, unrelated, un-socially contracted person walked into the room. It was quite awkward for a moment as this new person was not a part of our understanding. I kept my head down and strummed on and I could hear murmurs of describing what was happening. At the end of the song I heard a polite applause, then I finally looked up – what I saw were three people who looked as if they just witnessed a car crash. I found it somewhat hilarious and realized that to some degree it was insensitive of me not to prepare them for something so odd in advance of our meeting so they could prepare for it psychologically. Basically, I blindsided them. My song performance was out of their normal daily routine (and maybe out of tune) in this sterile corporate environment. Well, I left that meeting with no money raised. So, for my next two fundraising calls, I warned participants before the meeting that I would be playing a song. Both those two calls resulted in new sponsorship for the Human Access Project’s annual river celebration, The Big Float.


The next step was figuring out how to get the song recorded. After starting and stopping too many times to count with well-intentioned friends and friends of friends who are musicians, I finally decided this song needed a quarterback or what I came to understand was a producer who could provide direction.  Gregg Williams, river lover and music producer extraordinaire, signed on to our charity song mission. Gregg has drummed with Sheryl Crow and the Wallflowers and was recently inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame.  It was a relief to finally have some structure and direction in producing the song and such a great experience to work with such a professional, cool guy.


In our first creative session, Gregg suggested that the song should have a non-perfect voice. It would make the song feel more honest. We thought the unusual voice of local jazz composer and legend, Dave Frishberg, would be perfect. I managed to get his number and he graciously allowed me to play him the song at his house. I immediately felt comfortable with Dave. He has a great sense of humor and could understand that this song was a personal expression and was sensitive with his feedback. Although Dave didn’t feel like he was the right person for the singing role, he was very kind to give the song a constructive critique. His principal feedback was that “the chorus as written was too whiny, and should look forward not back, and it should be a celebration.   The chorus might be the one part of the song that people remember and will sing, it needs to be more simple.  Also, no one would sing the word “resource” in a chorus – it is much too academic for a lyric”, Dave was really stuck on that. I finally had to tell Dave, “Look let’s just assume I am going to completely re-write the chorus, it’s totally fine, I am ok with that”.  He wanted to know if what I was saying made sense to him.  I told him I have never written a song before but I am absorbing everything you say, such a cool experience.  His other feedback, “It is your song, you know how it should sound, trust your instinct and make it.”  It was great to have Dave’s encouragement, ultimately I have learned that art is self-expression, it is not a competition and if you are earnest about expressing yourself you can’t do it “wrong”.


From there it was smooth sailing, Portland legend Lewi Longmire, volunteered to play on the song and he brought his frequent musical partner Anita Lee Elliott to sing harmony.  Lewi is such a cool dude and Anita is an angel.  It was sort of miraculous how Lewi basically heard the song one time, and nailed the guitar in no more than two takes.  He then did his vocal track, also played some organ and Anita came in with the harmony.  Lewi is such an amazing guitar player and songwriter, he knew just how to sing it and Anita nonchalantly dropped in a harmony that as I was hearing it live practically brought me to tears as my one dimensional song came to life.  Writing this even now it shakes me up a bit to think about it.  Of course Gregg played drums. 


The song was premiered at a scheduled public testimony at City Hall on June 18th.  I made sure to warn all the commissioners and the mayor I would be playing a song.  I hate the idea of having to convince someone they should care about the Willamette River. To some degree it is humiliating to me and to the river. So, rather than making a pitch for the river, I played my song and tried to reach them through the power of music.  I may be a hopeless optimist, but I think the song may have had some impact.


The great insight this process has given me is the realization that many humans do not have outlets for creative expression – and have difficulty expressing their feelings and putting themselves out there. “Our River” is a tribute to the Willamette River - and to Pete Seeger who inspired me to re-discover a part of myself that was set aside (like a guitar in the closet) long ago – the simple joy of expression.  I started the process because I felt the Willamette River needed a song.  I found out I needed one too.


Willie Levenson


Human Access Project