Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943
Amid the rancor, shock, violence and triumphalism of recent days I’ve been thinking about one American, whose vision of the country stands in bold relief to much of what I’ve read and heard in recent months.
Woody Guthrie wasn’t bound for glory as a progressive hero – not at first, paper at any rate. He was the son of a Texas landowner. His father was involved in the lynching of two people and was, Guthrie later alleged, a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
The young Woody would stand with his father while the latter, who was involved in 1920s Oklahoma politics as a conservative Democrat, gave stump speeches.
That’s where ‘official’ politics ended for Guthrie, however. In 1931, aged 19 and an aspiring songwriter, he set out from Texas for California. Over the next three decades he would travel and work all over the United States, appearing on radio in LA, recording for Moses Asch in New York City, and penning songs for the Bonneville Power Administration in Portland, Oregon.
In the process he would write hundreds of songs, including one about the father of our current President-Elect. More famously, his “This Land Is Your Land” has become something of an alternative national anthem. Other songs – “Do Re Mi”, “Pastures of Plenty”, “So Long It’s Been Good To Know Ya”, have seeped into the cultural consciousness.
This week, though, I’ve been listening to a song Guthrie wrote but never recorded. In January 1948 he read in the New York Times of a plane crash in the San Joaquin Valley in central California. Twenty-eight migrant farm workers, who were accompanied by four Americans, died when the plane transporting them back to Mexican crashed.
Outraged that the Times and radio reports named the deceased Americans but simply labelled the 28 workers “deportees”, Guthrie wrote his last great song, “Deportee“.
Among the song’s seven verses are the lines:
“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.”
Plus ca change. Guthrie’s pal Pete Seeger would later popularize “Deportee”, singing it at concerts. Dozens of others have since recorded it.
In a week when a 70-year-old song has become relevant again, when phrases like “great, great walls” and “11 million illegals” are bandied around with menace, it’s worth a listen.