Sunday, June 7, 2009

Woody Guthrie: Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)

SONG Deportees

WRITTEN BY Woody Guthrie

PERFORMED BY Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston

APPEARS ON The Greatest Songs of Woody Guthrie (1972)

NOTE This song, one of Guthrie's most memorable, has been covered many times. I couldn't find a version of Woody singing it, so I've included renditions by the Boston folk singer Antje Duvekot, Arlo Guthrie and Emmylou Harris, and Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

The agreement of 1947 [between Mexico and the U.S.]... contained a novel provision which established amnesty through deportation. Under its terms, undocumented Mexicans who were sent back across the border could return to the U.S. as temporary contract laborers; during the life of their contracts, they could not be again deported. In practice, employers often called Border Patrol stations to report their own undocumented employees, who were returned, momentarily, to border cities in Mexico, where they signed labor contracts with the same employers who had denounced them. This process became known as "drying out wetbacks" or "storm and drag immigration." "Drying out" provided a deportation-proof source of cheap seasonal labor...

Dick J. Reavis, Without Documents
Sometime during 1948, Woody Guthrie read an account of plane crash in Los Gatos Canyon, California. The plane was returning anonymous undocumented migrant workers to California, human beings that the newspaper article identified only as "deportees." He then wrote his great song "Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" in which he humanized the dead migrants as only he could. To Guthrie, they are not merely deportees: They have names (Juan, Rosalita, Jesus, Maria) and families:
My father's own father, he waded that river
They took all the money he made in his life
My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees
And they rode the truck till they took down and died
To Guthrie it is the "they" who took the money, who "chase us like outlaws," who are the anonymous ones, hiding behind legalisms to rob and exploit the migrants until there is nothing left but "dry leaves to rot on my topsoil." The use of the word "my" implicates all of us in the fate of the migrants, for it is we who eat "the good fruit."

Last week, I read this account of the customers at a Rocky Mount, NC drug store who couldn't afford all of their medications and as a result had to pick and choose. One two-time heart attack victim could not afford $160 anti-clotting medicine. A mother skips inhaler refills for her asthmatic son. A man passes on prescriptions for heart disease and emphysema. Reading the article brought to mind this verse from "Deportee":
Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we cab grow our good fruit?
Surely, Rocky Mount is one of our American orchards and the people who live there are our good fruit, now deportees in their own land. And surely we -- their amigos, their fellow countryman -- can find a better way to care for them.


The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting,
The oranges piled in their creosote dumps;
They're flying 'em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be "deportees"

My father's own father, he waded that river,
They took all the money he made in his life;
My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees,
And they rode the truck till they took down and died.

Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract's out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.

We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died 'neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.

The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, "They are just deportees"

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except "deportees"?

The Boston-based folk singer Antje Duvekot sings the first version of "Deportee." BTW, Antje has an outstanding new CD called The Near Demise of the High Wire Dancer.

Here, Woody's son Arlo and Emmylou Harris sing "Deportee." Emmylou's harmomy vocal is, as always, peerless:

Finally, here are Bob Dylan and Joan Baez from the 1976 Rolling Thunder Review tour:


  1. There's a great version of this song on the first Los Super Seven album, with Joe Ely doing the singing. Springsteen has covered it as well, it's on the Guthrie tribute album "'Til We Outnumber Them".
    It's just a great song.


    1. The Los Super Seven version is my personal favorite.

  2. My understanding (but I could be wrong) is that Marty Hoffman wrote the music to the words which were found with Guthrie's effects. It is a fantastic & powerful, powerful song. All those versions are very good. Like anonymous, I'd give a nod to the Los Super Seven version too.

  3. For some reason this last couple of weeks that song was running through my head on several occasions. Don't know what kicked it off - probably some right wingnut mouthing off - but there it was. It's a great song. And I seriously need to look up Antje Duvekot; I've never heard of her before, but now I want to hear more.

  4. Roy: it couldn't be the sad fact that the song remains timely that had it going through your head? I was actually going to right about something else today until I read the NYT article. The "is this the best way" lyric came right to mind.

    RGG: There sure is a lot of good Joe Ely music out there, isn't there? I may have to do a Just A Song on "I Had My Hopes Up High." Butch Hancock may have written it, but Joe really delivers on the vocals.

    John: Not that it means much, but I've never heard that someone else wrote the tune. Guthrie definitely recorded it. Have you heard the two Mermaid Street CDs by Billy Bragg and Wilco?

  5. Mermaid Avenue. That's the one where Nora Guthrie gave Billy Bragg and Wilco lyrics that Woody had left behind to set to music. They had plans at the time to do that with a number of artists. There were a lot of lyrics. Deportees was an old one that Woody did perform. Of course he could have stolen - er - folk processed - the tune from something else. That happened a lot. I love that song. It was in Arlo's regular set for a couple of years in the 90's and he did introduce it by saying how unfortunately it's just as relevant now was when Woody wrote it.

  6. ZY: Thanks for the correction. The albums are of course titled Mermaid Avenue and not Mermaid Street. Both are quite good. I once saw Billy Bragg give a talk about how they came about. Nora Guthrie contacted him about his interest in such a project. He was interested, to say the least. I believe that she recommended Jeff Tweedy and Wilco, but left it up to Bragg. He and Tweedy hit it off; Bragg extolled Tweedy's contributions to the project with great respect and sincerity.

  7. I love all these versions but where is Billy Bragg's; thats my favorite.

  8. Here it is March 2011 and it is very much on my mind--Headlines are that the gap between the rich and the poor is growing ever greater. There is a sense that eventually there will be poor people and rich people but no middle class.

    I have spent some time and several years, off and on listening to different versions of this song and I'd like to add that Dolly Parton has a very plaintive, compelling, and simple one. This will always be a great song. The poetry works, the story moves, and the music carries everything. I never tire of it. America, the land of social justice, a work in progress--whose underbelly of an infrastructure NOT working, is exposed. So beautiful, so sad, so very wrong.

  9. Juliana, I am not familiar with Dolly's rendition, but will be sure to check it out. Thanks for the tip!

  10. I remember hearing this song sung by the daughter of Bob DeWitt in his Art Gallery/Coffee House in Topanga Canyon, north of Los Angeles, when I was just a child. Bob was a good friend of my father, who’s Mexican American.

  11. I first hear this song sung by Willie Nelson on the "Highwayman" Album and it struck a nerve with me. I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and always visited the Salinas Valley area where this song I believe is singing about.

  12. To reply to something in the initial post (interesting site concept, btw) there is an offical WG site, where (I imagine) the lyrics are VERY VERY carefully proofread before publishing (as it's effectively the source of all others, unless one can access the original handbooks). There are some intriguing Woody-isms in that authoritative version of this song, even slightly differing form the one posted here, which looks pretty accurate. In the first line, he uses the phrase "rott'ning", not "rotting". there are others. In your interpretation, I suspect Jesus and Maria are not given as examples of the names of the immigrants, but as an invocation, in Spanish, to Jesus and Mary (the Biblical ones) to protect Juan and Rosalita (and all those others their names represent), as most Mexicans surely would themselves have done?
    Like K, I'd never heard of Marty Hoffman before.
    According to the WG site, the song's formal title is the longer one, but a.k.a. "Deportees", not the other way round.