The best WA public service music made for (and paid by) the masses
Jun 16, 2023, 9:34 AM | Updated: 9:51 am
(Washington State Department of Health)
Legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie was famously commissioned by the Bonneville Power Administration in the 1940s to write songs about Columbia River hydroelectric projects. That story has been well-told again and again, and many of the songs that resulted – including “Roll On, Columbia” – have become beloved treasures of the Pacific Northwest musical canon.
But Woody wasn’t the only one ever commissioned to write music about and for the Pacific Northwest. And so, with apologies to Mr. Guthrie (who might now be “rolling-on” in his grave after being dragged into this edition of All Over The Map), here’s a sampling of other public service music that was made for, and paid for, by the people.
Free Youth Transit Pass
A TV commercial is currently airing on local stations for King County’s “Free Youth Transit Pass” program. The spot features an original song written and performed by kids in the Rain City Rock Camp. It’s a catchy number called, not surprisingly, “Free Youth Transit.”
It’s not clear if any public dollars were spent writing and recording that song, but it was a good excuse to look and listen back to earlier moments in local history when specific initiatives by public entities resulted in the creation of memorable music that the public all got to enjoy and that we all helped pay for.
See You in Seattle
First up, from late 1961, the “official song” of the Seattle World’s Fair, which serves as an enticement to “See You in Seattle.” This song is by The Lancers, a vocal group from California who hit it big in the early 1950s with a song called “Sweet Mama Tree Top Tall,” but they pretty much disappeared from the radar – and the lounge circuit – by the mid-1960s.
Under The Viaduct
This next one is from the 1980s (accounts vary from 1986 to 1989), but it only came to light in 2013 when then-Interim Seattle Police Chief Jim Pugel apologized for his role in it.
As Brandi Kruse, who was then with KIRO Newsradio, wrote at the time, it’s “a parody of The Drifters’ 1964 hit ‘Under the Boardwalk’ and features Seattle police officers in the role of homeless inebriates. It was included in a training video that was briefly released, then retracted by the department in 1989.”
I-405 Express Toll Lanes
Fast-forward to early 2015 when, to the delight mainly of KIRO Newsradio’s Chris Sullivan, the I-405 Express Toll Lanes and the famous Flex Pass was being introduced by the Washington State Department of Transportation. That’s when this little earworm – and my personal favorite – jammed the airwaves and blocked musical traffic in both directions with no alternate routes.
Now, it’s out of chronological order, but this next one from 2010 is the grand finale, as it might be the very best publicly funded Pacific Northwest music composition of all time. Sorry, Woody!
It was for the flu season that year when, according to The Spokesman-Review, a Washington State Department of Health employee had a clever idea to virally spread an important message about, well, stopping the viral spread.
As the agency’s website still says, “The Washington State Department of Health welcomes you to WashYourHandsingTon! Where everyone washes their hands, covers their coughs, and gets the flu vaccine! Get vaccinated. Stop the flu.” As it also notes that “This campaign was paid for with federal funds sent to Washington State specifically for flu prevention work.”
Did we miss any? Please let me know (contact info below), and maybe we’ll do a follow-up episode. In the meantime, please remember to Wash Your Handsingtons – both of them!
You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.