Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee”: Representing Conflict and Resistance

Saturday, January 8, 2022
Grand Ballroom Foyer (New Orleans Marriott)
Norwood H. Andrews III, independent scholar
In the furious lyrics of one of his greatest songs, “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” Woody Guthrie reached out to Mexican braceros, fellow migrants who were treated by others as being nameless. As a work performed and popularized by Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and many others, “Deportee” has long served to document the racism faced by Mexican migrant workers and families in California, and offered a way of relating their treatment to broader campaigns for social justice.

While the song is widely appreciated as a classic example of protest music, my poster offers an integrated visual and aural presentation of a different understanding of its importance, in a historical context. As Seeger conscientiously indicated and other performers and analysts of Guthrie’s works have always recognized, the music of “Deportee” was created some years after its lyrics (by schoolteacher Martin Hoffman, who later shared his work with Seeger). But the creation of “Guthrie’s song” as we know it, in my view, must be understood as a longer historical process which also features Guthrie’s own prior influences, the reinterpretations of later performers, and the evolving legacy of Guthrie himself as an iconic character in a collective memory shared by diverse groups of Americans. What drove this process was the long-developing relationship between Guthrie’s composition and the music of braceros themselves, and other Mexican and Mexican-American performers who experienced and examined some of the same things that Guthrie tried to address: the hard choices and risks of migration; the brutalities, glaring and more subtle, inflicted by an unjust structure of power and its enforcers; and the creation of a documentary record as a defining purpose.

My poster illustrates the role of this relationship by juxtaposing visual representations of its features, and incorporating specific examples of musical passages (used with permission) which I invite viewers to experience on their phones using QR codes which I include in the explanatory text of my poster. As I show, “Deportee” shares key phrases and ideas with at least three corrido ballads which were performed and recorded, in Mexico and the United States, during the 1930s and 1940s, and which can be linked to occasions and periods in Guthrie’s working life. Guthrie’s lyrics, unaccompanied by his own music, were the culmination of a dedicated personal project of outreach across an Anglo-Mexican cultural divide which has not been closely recognized or identified in existing Guthrie scholarship. But in later years, the repeated adaptation of the song by Mexican-American performers from successive generations demonstrates an essential recognition of Guthrie’s core purpose, as well as their determination to make the song serve distinct purposes of their own. As an arguably genuine folk song cemented in popular memory in part by its association with Guthrie iconography and legend, “Deportee” continues to inspire performers and listeners to construct, and pursue, different agendas. The history of “Deportee” illustrates the transnational formation and circulation of 20th century folk music, and sheds further light on musical campaigns of rebellion, revolution, and other forms of resistance.

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