RICHARD POLENBERG: Well, the early songs of that sort were written to delight his daughter. But as some of you may know, she died tragically at the age of only four in February 1947.
Woody was in Manhattan while Marjorie, her mother, was watching her. She was pregnant then with their second child, Arlo. And she left for a few minutes to get something. And when she returned, she found their apartment in Coney Island was ablaze.
A faulty radio wire had evidently caused an electrical fire. She took Cathy to the hospital. When Woody got home later that night, he found a note telling him to go to the hospital, and his daughter died the next morning.
Shortly after, he wrote a letter to Mother Bloor to tell her what a wonderful revolutionary Cathy would have been had she been spared. And he wrote in his own notebook, "And the things you fear shall truly come upon you."
The death of his daughter was the most catastrophic event for Woody in the immediate post-war years. But it can't be said that this period was generally a happy or productive one for him.
In 1946, he attempted to write a cycle of songs about the execution of the Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who it was generally believed were wrongly convicted of murder and electrocuted back in 1927.
He was funded by Mo Asch of Folkways Records. He retraced Sacco and Vanzetti's steps in Boston and Plymouth, Massachusetts. He eventually wrote and recorded some songs about the tragedy. But he didn't think they were very good.
And he was probably right. It was not like writing about the Dust Bowl or about Grand Coulee Dam. And the recordings wouldn't be released until many years later.
In 1947, as the Cold War between the US and the USSR escalated, anti-communist hysteria grew in the United States. There was still a labor movement, but not a labor movement that was erratic, that was radical in outlook, not like the movement that had once welcomed the Almanac Singers.
In 1948, Woody, along with Pete Seeger and others, campaigned for Henry Wallace for the presidency. Wallace, of course, had been Roosevelt's secretary of agriculture and then vice president. But he broke with Harry Truman over foreign policy and ran on the Progressive Party ticket, was supported by Woody and by Pete Seeger.
But Wallace received only 2% of the vote in the election, less even than the arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond running on a Dixiecrat ticket. So politics wasn't what it once had been, as sort of what it been back in the 1930s.
But Woody did write two wonderful songs during this period. And one of them he wrote in February 1948 after reading a newspaper account of an airplane crash a few days before. This was a charter flight carrying 28 Mexican farm workers from Oakland, where they'd been apprehended to a California deportation center from which they were to be shipped back to Mexico.
Some of the migrants had entered the US illegally. Others had work contracts, but the work contracts had expired.
At the time, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, an estimated 1 million Mexican farm workers entered the United States each year around harvest time. They were paid starvation wages. The New York Times had a report done-- or sent a reporter to investigate.
And he said that to understand the plight of migrant labor, you have to project yourself imaginatively, and I'm quoting now, "back a full century to the days of slavery, when the systematic exploitation of an underprivileged class of humanity was an accepted part of the American social and economic order."
Well, this crash in 1948 occurred near Coalinga, about 75 miles from Fresno. In addition to the workers, the pilot, the stewardess, who was, in fact, the pilot's wife, and the co-pilot, and an immigration inspector were killed.
The newspaper accounts, which I've read, gave the names, even the addresses, of the pilot and his wife, and et cetera. But none of the names of the 28 Mexican workers were listed in any of the newspaper accounts. They were just called deportees.
According to the newspaper, the plane, quote, "appeared to explode. Witnesses observed smoke from the left engine, and the wing fell off. Some said that they saw bodies either jumping from or thrown from the aircraft. The wreckage was consumed with flames. They couldn't even try to remove the bodies until the fire had died out."
The official report of the crash notes that a plane with adequate seating capacity was scheduled to be flown. But by accident, the different aircraft was taken, which didn't have enough seats.
So in fact, three of the migrant workers were not even in seats with seat belts. They were just sitting on luggage in the airplane. And those were probably the bodies that witnesses saw hurtling out of the airplane as it began its horrible descent.
The song talks about oranges piled in their creosote dumps. The system then was that if an orange was slightly defective-- and it was perfectly good orange, full of vitamin C and all of that good stuff, and probably even tasted good, but it had something wrong with it. So you couldn't sell it as a first-rate orange.
And so rather than allow people to eat those oranges, they would be put into creosote dumps. They'd be covered with creosote so as to spoil them so that they couldn't be eaten.
And Woody Guthrie, in a song that Jan is going to teach and sing, comes up with names, Juan and Rosalita, Jesus y Maria, for the deportees. So in a way, what he was doing was trying to confer a kind of dignity on people who otherwise were simply nameless.
And the song "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos Canyon" is a song, again, that Jan is going to sing with us and maybe teach the chorus.
JAN NIGRO: So I'll sing the chorus for you one time.
[MUSIC - "PLANE WRECK AT LOS GATOS"]
(SINGING) 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 deportee.
So I'll sing a couple of lines. Probably a lot of you know this one already. I'll sing a line, and if you sing it back to me. Goodbye to my Juan. Goodbye, Rosalita.
AUDIENCE: Goodbye to my Juan. Goodbye, Rosalita.
JAN NIGRO: Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria.
AUDIENCE: Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria.
JAN NIGRO: You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane.
AUDIENCE: You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane.
JAN NIGRO: All they will call you will be deportee.
AUDIENCE: All they will call and you will be deportee.
JAN NIGRO: Let's try that whole chorus.
ALL: Goodbye to my Juan. Goodbye, Rosalita. Adios mis amigo, Jesus y Maria. You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane. All they will call you will be deportees.
JAN NIGRO: [INAUDIBLE]
(SINGING) The crops are all in, and the peaches are rotting, the oranges piled in their creosote dumps. They're flying them back to the Mexican border to pay all their money to wade back again.
My father's own father, he waded that river. They took all the money he made in his life. My brothers and sisters come work in the fruit trees. They rode the truck until they took down and died.
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.
Some of us are illegal. Some are not wanted. Our work contract's out, and we have to move on. 600 miles to the 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 planes. We died 'neath your trees, and we died in your bushes. Both sides of the river, we die both the same.
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 deportee.
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?
Goodbye to my Juan. Goodbye, Rosalita. Adios mis amigo, Jesus y Maria. You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane. All they will call you will be deportee. All they will call you will be deportees.
RICHARD POLENBERG: Well, thanks, Jan. Thank you, Jan. Jan will be back later on at the end and when we're all singing together. So thanks again.
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Join historian Richard Polenberg in a lecture and concert of the life and songs of Woody Guthrie.
This video is part 11 of 17 in the Woody Guthrie: His Life, Times, and Music series.