music as social action ::
Our class discussion was cut short before I could share this bit about another Woody Guthrie song important to transmitting information about certain social groups as well as ritualizing the maintenance of those identities: "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos," known colloquially as "Deportee."
A recording by Woody is not available to stream, but here's a version by his pal Pete Seeger.
The song tells the story of a plane crash near Los Gatos, Calif., on Jan. 28, 1948. Woody was living in New York City at the time, and he read in The New York Times about the crash that killed 32 people. Only a few of those people, however, were named in the story: the white flight crew and a white security guard on board. The others were migrant workers from Mexico, who on the plane because they were being deported. Because their names were not listed, their families were not identified.
Wood was moved to write a song about their plight, not just on the plane but in the culture. Without names to sing, he takes some poetic license and gives them symbolic ones: Juan, Rosalita, Jesus, Maria, etc. Listen to Seeger's recording of the song — think about what exactly is being protested here, and how?
Fast forward to 2009: Tim Hernandez, an author/poet/professor, was in a Fresno library researching a book, and he spotted an original newspaper article about the crash. "Who were the people on that plane?" he wondered. "Did anyone ever tell their loved ones why they didn't come home?” A marker for the anonymous bodies was erected in a Fresno cemetery that read simply: “28 Mexican citizens who died in an airplane accident … RIP.” Hernandez decided to do the detective work to identify all 28 people. He found many of their survivors, learned their stories, and wrote a book celebrating their lives. He still speaks around the country, sometimes performing with other musicians, and when he talks about this story he reads the list of all 28 names. Watch that here (can skip to about 4:12):
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