Woody Guthrie is easily classified as one of the most influential voices in American folk music. His songs have stood the test of time, and are still being covered by every folk musician and many big name artists in the industry.
Folk songs written in protest don’t always stand the test of time. Often these songs are continued to be performed or studied in a historical context, but for many songs the symbolism and message behind them continues to strongly resonate with modern society and/or current politics. Guthrie’s ‘Deportee’ is one of those songs, for better or worse.
In 1948, a plane carrying 32 people – 4 Americans and 28 Mexican migrant farm workers – crashed, killing everyone on board. The Americans were flight crew and a security guard, and the mission was to deport the farm workers back to their country of origin. The news articles in Guthrie’s area listed the names of the Americans who perished, but did not name the unfortunate Mexican migrant workers, instead simply calling them ‘Deportees’. For more details about this incident, check out this great article on El Beisman.
This made Guthrie irate and sad. He penned these lyrics originally as a poem, with the chorus and a few lines in one of the verses directly referencing this particular crash. The majority of the song discussed the anti-immigration status of the American culture of the time, and how disappointing it was to Guthrie during the aftermath of this tragedy. The poem was later set to music by a man named Martin Hoffman.
More recently, there have been multiple articles on the hunt for the names and families of the migrant farm workers who perished in this tragic accident by Tim Hernandez. There is also a plaque dedicated to them, but it also does not mention their names.
Click here to hear Arlo Guthrie and Hoyt Axton sing this timeless protest song.
I recorded a quick version myself, just me and a ukelele and my 8-week old kitten. You can hear it below.