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Song Review - Plane Crash at Los Gatos Canyon

This week I decided to review a song that I've known and loved for years and years.


Plane Crash at Los Gatos Canyon (sometimes known as "Deportees" ) is a folk song written in 1948 by Woody Guthrie. I've known it since I was a teenager and I think that it may be the best political song ever written.


It's poetic, with remarkable imagery. It's written from experience and from the heart and the political message is just as relevant today as it was when it was it was written sixty-five years ago.


Woody Guthrie was born in Oklahoma in 1912, and was one of the "dust bowl refugees" described by John Steinbeck in "The Grapes of Wrath" who sought work in the orchards of California in the 1930s. He and Steinbeck knew each other. When he wrote the song Guthrie had just heard that a plane had crashed in Los Gatos Canyon, California its way to Mexico, killing all those onboard. The plane was carrying four American crew members and twenty-eight illegal immigrants who had been working in California's orchards. The plane had been chartered by the Immigration Authorities specifically to deport the twenty-eight and did not have enough seats for them all.


In the first verse Guthrie deals with the pointlessness of it all. Too many crops have been picked and some of them left to rot, and next year the people who've been deported will pay hard earned money to people traffickers to get back to the USA so that the whole process can be repeated:


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


Guthrie read about the crash in the New York Times, whose report printed the names of the crew members and a security guard, but simply described the passengers as "deportees" and didn't print their names. These people had no worth - this is the point that Guthrie stresses in the chorus which is repeated at the end of each verse:


Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,

Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;

You won't have your names when you ride the big aeroplane,

All they will call you will be "deportees"


The next two verses continue to describe the lives of the illegal immigrants that America depends upon to bring in its harvests:


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.


The next verse reminds me that little has changed in sixty-five years, and that Guthrie's words are just as applicable to Europe now as it is was to America then. It reminds me that this year hundreds of people have died in ill-equipped boats in the Mediterranean trying to enter Europe illegally, and it also reminds me of the fate of at least twenty-one Chinese cockle pickers , all illegal migrant workers who were killed by an incoming tide at Morecambe Bay, England in 2004:


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.


In the next, penultimate verse, Guthrie returns to the fact that the press refuse to name the victims of this disaster and uses the images of "scattered dry leaves" to describe the plight of the deportees. He convinces us that these people are his friends. It is unlikely that he did know any of them personally as he'd been living in New York for a decade by 1948, but of course when he was a migrant worker in the California orchards of the 1930s he would have known many people like them:


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"


In the final verse Woody Guthrie continues the dry leaves imagery to rail against the system that caused the deaths of the thirty two passengers and crew.


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"?


It's very clever imagery - just who or what is falling like dry leaves and rotting on whose topsoil? This is what makes this song such a profound criticism of the system that feeds us and these few lines are what makes the song so relevant to today:


The song ends with a final chorus which begins:


Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,

Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria


By giving names to the nameless, Woody Guthrie has empowered them.


You can listen to Joan Baez singing "Plane Crash" here:

English folk singer Kevin Littlewood has written a very powerful song about the Chinese Cockle pickers. If you enjoyed "Deportees" you'll probably like that too. 

 

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