Ghosts of Deportees

Woodie guthrie

Woodie guthrie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“…Woodie Guthrie’s famous ballad Deportee about a 1948 plane crash in California that killed the pilot, crew and passengers, who were Mexican nationals being deported back to Mexico at the end of the harvest season.  Guthrie had read about the crash in the New York Times, which described the crew in detail and then dismissed the passengers as anonymous deportees.  The point of the song is in the refrain:  “You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane / All they will call you will be deportee,” capturing the denial and indignity visited on migrant farmworkers even in death.

That night McCutcheon had a response.  He and others had considered that if the crash victims were deported, there should be some record of the deportation order in INS archives from which identities could be recovered.  They found them and erected a monument in Fresno last Fall over the mass grave where they are buried that gives them back their names.  (A video of the dedication event from the Fresno Bee is available here.)…

–via CounterPunch, and

The names McCutcheon found overlap nicely with the names Guthrie chose for his song (“Goodbye to my Juan… Rosalita… Jesus et Maria…,” and you can easily imagine Guthrie using all the others in verses he dreamt up but never wrote down. The melody we know, chiefly from the insanely beatific Byrds cover on Sweethearts of the Rodeo (1969), comes from Martin Hoffman; Guthrie’s melody seems lost. The miracle of the song lies in how Guthrie turns the victims’ names into melodic flowers, and how gloriously  all their names ring out even though they’re fictional. How could you not adore such beautiful names, Guthrie asks, at once celebrating the individual lives and shaming the “deportee” epithet.

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  1. dshapiro says

    I learned the song from a book, and only later heard the Byrds recording. This should be a must-listen for every person who values political songwriting or just plain great songwriting. As I read this post, I could hear the song in my head again, after not having heard it in decades. Thanks for reminding me.