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An Appreciation of John McCuthceon

Giving Names to Guthrie’s Deportees

by BILL JULIAN

For many years the folksinger John McCutcheon has performed at the Palms Playhouse in Winters California (previously in Davis) over the Martin Luther King Day week-end.  This year his concert was subdued, focused mainly on traditional songs by Woody Guthrie and his own compositions with political content.  He was probably aware of Pete Seeger’s failing health and impending death, although he did not talk about it, and that contributed to the elegiac air of the concert.

The highlight was the performance of a song he does not often cover, Woodie Guthrie’s famous ballad Deportee about a 1948 plane crash in California that killed the pilot, crew and passengers, who were Mexican nationals being deported back to Mexico at the end of the harvest season.  Guthrie had read about the crash in the New York Times, which described the crew in detail and then dismissed the passengers as anonymous deportees.  The point of the song is in the refrain:  “You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane / All they will call you will be deportee,” capturing the denial and indignity visited on migrant farmworkers even in death.

That night McCutcheon had a response.  He and others had considered that if the crash victims were deported, there should be some record of the deportation order in INS archives from which identities could be recovered.  They found them and erected a monument in Fresno last Fall over the mass grave where they are buried that gives them back their names.  (A video of the dedication event from the Fresno Bee is available here.)

As John McCutcheon sang the song at the Palms the names were read out:

Miguel Negrete Alvarez

Francisco Llamas Duran

Santiago Garcia Elizondo

Rosalio Padilla Estrada

Barnabe Lopez Garcia

Ramon Paredes Gonzalez

Tomas Avina de Gracia

Salvador Sandoval Hernandez

Guadalupe Ramirez Lara

Elias Trujillo Macias

Jose Rodriguez Macias

Tomas Padilla Marquez

Luis Lopez Medina

Manuel Calderon Merino

Luis Cuevas Miranda

Martin Razo Navarro

Ignacio Perez Navarro

Roman Ochoa Ochoa

Apolonio Ramirez Placencia

Alberto Carlos Raygoza

Guadalupe Hernandez Rodriguez

Maria Santana Rodriguez

Juan Valenzuela Ruiz

Jose Valdivia Sanchez

Jesus Meza Sanchez

Baldomero Marcas Torres

John McCutcheon’s work over the past forty years has reflected the best traditions of American folk music – mixing protest and moral witness with simple, strong and often very funny affirmations of basic human values and rights, from soup to baseball to Sarajevo.  This recent gesture – recovering the names of the Deportee crash victims and removing them from the list of anonymous victims of that murderous century – is another powerful engagement with the tradition and the communities out of which it rises, even as it makes singing that particular song less essential.

Bill Julian lives in Davis California.