John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“Deportee,” a Classic Song About Immigrants

Woody Guthrie song got great rendition from son Arlo and Hoyt Axton.

By - Jun 26th, 2018 02:33 pm
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Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie

Wrap your head around this: Arlo Guthrie is a Republican. Last week it was Dion, who’s next, Bob Dylan? What does it even mean to be a Republican? Don’t ask your president, he chose that party and pretended to love its worst ideas because he saw a clear path to the White House in a field of less than stellar candidates. He acts like he believes in it, but we all know he only believes in himself. I’ve heard that Arlo explains his new affiliation by claiming the GOP needs a few good men. OK. But then we need a new Arlo Guthrie and I’d like him to be a lot like the one we listen to singing the deeply stirring song his father, Woody Guthrie, wrote, one that really resonates today: “Deportee.”

The plane crash in Los Gatos canyon in January of 1948 took the life of 32 Mexican laborers and 4 Americans. When this tragedy was reported in The New York Times, it did not include the names of the Mexicans, referring to them only as “deportees.” Guthrie’s responded with a poem that gave fictional names to the victims in the chorus. (He must have known it would be a song one day — you don’t see a lot of choruses in poems.) When these words were later put to music by a teacher named Martin Hoffman, he chose to sing them as a waltz, that beautiful rhythm consigned to history. The results were amazing — a grim story over an almost too pretty piece of music. The song was first popularized by Pete Seeger, who knew a good thing when he heard it.

The rest is history, with a who’s who of popular music performing their version. In this particularly sweet one, Hoyt Axton, he of the booming baritone, adds his two cents and two verses to carry it over the line. Hoyt was a good songwriter himself, with songs like “Greenback Dollar” to “Joy To The World” that kept a nice little revenue stream flowing his way. His mother, Mae Axton, may have showed him a trick or two; she was cashing her own sizable checks after writing “Heartbreak Hotel.”

“Deportee” is a song that flows like a river, starting with a startling image of government sponsored waste and the needless trip back and the dangerous return. The two singers deliver it wonderfully. The lyrics:

The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting
The oranges are packed in the creosote dumps
They’re flying you back to the Mexico border
To pay all your money to wade back again

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria
You won’t have a name 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
They rode the big trucks till they lay down and die

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria
You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you will be deportees

The skyplane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon
A fireball of lightning, and it shook all the hills
Who are these friends that are falling like the dry leaves
The radio tells me they’re just deportees

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria
You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you will be deportees

© Woody Guthrie/Martin Hoffman

There are at least three more verses you can hear Axton say that’s all he can remember at the end of the song. Woody Guthrie, like Dylan, who was heavily influenced by him, was not what you would call an under-writer. But these three verses tell it all. With the ease of a natural poet, Guthrie puts this indelible image in your mind: “Who are these friends that are falling like the dry leaves? The radio tells me they’re just deportees.” Woody Guthrie spared no one when he looked around, least of all his audience. This is a master’s class in how to marry the news with your art. Its simplicity is deceiving, other aspiring songwriters have torn up a reams of paper in futile attempts to write something this fine.

The images and sounds from Donald Trump’s baby jails are evidence of how little things have changed in this country. It’s disheartening. When children are treated as nothing but bargaining chips it might be time for Arlo to switch back. If he can’t do that, the next one needs to step up.

5 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: “Deportee,” a Classic Song About Immigrants”

  1. David Barnhill says:

    Great versions of this song by:
    Bruce Springsteen
    Barbara Dane
    Richard Shindell
    Joan Baez

  2. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    A beautiful song! — However, it’ll be hard to see Arlo Guthrie the same way again! Alice’s Restaurant just does not scream out REPUBLICAN!

  3. Arlo Guthrie says:

    We sing Deportees at pretty much every show we do. It’s an important song these days. More so now than when it was written. Having said that, the writer of this piece didn’t ask me anything regarding my party affiliation. I joined the Republican party about 15 years ago so that I could vote in their primaries and use my vote to push for candidates whose policies were more closely aligned with my own (which are fairly well known). I left the party years ago and do not identify myself with either party these days. I strongly urge my fellow Americans to stop the current trend of guilt by association, and look beyond the party names and affiliations, and work for candidates whose policies are more closely aligned with their own, whatever they may be. The information regarding me in this piece is woefully outdated, and is simply false. Although well intentioned, false accusations and sloppy journalism does no one any good.

  4. Dean Calin says:

    Your amazing ability to highlight musical gems from the past, complete with all of the fascinating corollary facts always impresses me. Thanks, again, John for this great column.

  5. Thomas says:

    Sad I am to hear that Arlo and Dion appear to have lost their souls. Woody’s soul still lives in “Deportee” and in dozens of other great songs.

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