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Woody Guthrie
Plane Wreck at Los Gatos
Accident summary
Date January 29, 1948
Type Fire, originating in the left engine-driven fuel pump
Site Diablo Mts., Coalinga, Fresno County, California, USA
Passengers 29
Crew 3
Fatalities 32 (all)
Survivors 0
Aircraft type Douglas DC-3, C-47B-40-DK Skytrain
Operator Airline Transport Carriers
(under contract with the INS)
Tail number NC36480

"Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" is a protest song with lyrics by Woody Guthrie detailing the January 28, 1948 crash of a plane near Los Gatos Canyon,[1] 20 miles west of Coalinga in Fresno County, California, United States.[2][3] The crash occurred in Los Gatos Canyon and not in the town of Los Gatos itself, which is in Santa Clara County, approximately 150 miles away. Guthrie was inspired to write the song by what he considered the racist mistreatment of the passengers before and after the accident.[1] The crash resulted in the deaths of 32 people, 4 Americans and 28 migrant farm workers who were being deported from California back to Mexico.[3]

Contents

History

The genesis of "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" reportedly occurred when Guthrie was struck by the fact that radio and newspaper coverage of the event did not give the victims' names, but instead referred to them merely as "deportees."[2] For example, none of the deportees' names were printed in the January 29, 1948 New York Times report, only those of the flight crew and the security guard.[3][4] Guthrie responded with a poem, which, when it was first written, featured only rudimentary musical accompaniment, with Guthrie chanting the song rather than singing it.[1] In the poem, Guthrie assigned symbolic names to the dead; "Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita; adiós, mis amigos, Jesús y María..."[5]

The Mexican victims of the accident were placed in a mass grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno, California. There were 27 men and one woman, with only 12 of the victims ever being identified.[6] The grave is 84 feet by 7 feet with two rows of caskets and not all of the bodies were buried the first day, but the caskets at the site did have an overnight guard.[6]

A decade later, Guthrie's poem was set to music and given a haunting melody by a schoolteacher named Martin Hoffman.[2] Shortly after, folk singer and friend of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, began performing the song at concerts and it was Seeger's rendition that popularized the song during this time.[2]

It has been suggested by the Three Rocks Research website that in fact, "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" betrays Woody Guthrie's lack of understanding regarding the Bracero Program.[3] The program was a series of laws and diplomatic agreements created by the U.S. Congress in 1942, that permitted Mexican farm laborers (or braceros) to work in the United States due to the severe labor shortages caused by World War II. Under the terms of the program, the labor contractors were expected to provide transportation to and from the Mexican border, with the U.S. Immigration Service being required to repatriate the Mexican citizens if the contractor defaulted.[3] As such, the "deportation" of braceros in this fashion was simply a way of meeting the obligations of the program.[3] However, it could be argued that Guthrie's song is less about the Bracero Program itself and more a comment on the attitude of American society and the media towards the Mexican farm laborers.

In addition to being a lament for the braceros killed in the crash, the opening lines of "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)":

"The crops are all in and the peaches are rott'ning,
The oranges piled in their creosote dumps."[5]

are another protest by Guthrie. At the time, government policies paid farmers to destroy their crops in order to keep farm production and prices high.[7] Guthrie felt that it was wrong to render food inedible by poisoning it in a world where hungry people lived.

"Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" has been described by journalist Joe Klein as "the last great song he [Guthrie] would write, a memorial to the nameless migrants "all scattered like dry leaves" in Los Gatos Canyon."[1] The song has been covered many times, often under a variety of alternate titles, including "Deportees", "Ballad of the Deportees", "Deportee Song" and "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)".

Cover versions

The Byrd's "country waltz" cover of the song for their Ballad of Easy Rider'' album has been described as "perfect for the poignant lyrics."

The song has been covered by a multitude of artists, including:

External links

Notes

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