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(Above: Arlo Guthrie pays tribute to his father as their friend Pete Seeger aids in a performance of “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Illegal immigration is a hot-button topic in the current political landscape, but it is hardly a new issue. In January, 1948, a plane crashed carrying 28 migrant farmers being deported by the U.S. government. All 32 passengers were killed in this tragedy, but when newspapers and radio stations reported the incident they only mentioned the names of the pilot, co-pilot, stewardess and guard. The workers were described only as “deportees.”

This incensed Woody Guthrie, who felt the workers were just as human as the other victims. Thus inspired, he wrote a poem expressing the injustice of the situation. Since the workers’ names were not known – 60 years later, 12 of the victims are still unknown – he made up names.

Ten years later, Guthrie had been hospitalized at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital for what would later be diagnosed as Huntington’s disease. Although Guthrie was very much out of the public eye, learning his music became a rite of passage for the musicians in the burgeoning folk revival. Schoolteacher Martin Hoffman was inspired by Guthrie’s “Deportee” poem and set the words to music. The song was quickly passed around the folk community and Guthrie’s friend Pete Seeger added it to his repertoire.

Guthrie’s lyrics not only pay respect to the departed workers, but question the system that seduces workers to leave their families and risk their lives to find unsecured work under questionable conditions. In addition to the 28 workers who died in the plane crash, Guthrie jumps to first person and pays tribute to the other workers who either died on the job in America or perished trying to reach a better life.

“We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died ‘neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same. “

After restoring humanity to the anonymous deportees and chronicling the plights of their families and countrymen, Guthrie delivers some damning questions in the final verse.

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”?

In the 2004 book “Reefer Madness,” author Eric Schlosser raises many of the same questions with his essay “In the Strawberry Fields.” Drawing on firsthand accounts, Schlosser describes the conditions of the illegal farmers in the California strawberry fields. The workers’ living conditions and treatment are amount to slavery in all but name, he argues. Schlosser’s questions, like Guthrie’s, remain unanswered.

“Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” has been covered so often that Guthrie biographer Joe Klein declared it the “last great song” Guthrie wrote. Artists who have recorded their vision of the song, either in tribute, in protest or both, include Pete Seeger, Guthrie’s son Arlo Guthrie, the Byrds, Bruce Springsteen, the Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, the country super group the Highwaymen, Peter, Paul and Mary, Concrete Blonde, Nanci Griffith, the Los Lobos side group Los Super Seven, Old Crow Medicine Show and Billy Bragg.

Keep reading:

Bob Dylan – “Workingman’s Blues No. 2”

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 (Above: Happy Labor Day! Bob Dylan’s tribute to Merle Haggard and the working man.)

Bob Dylan – “Workingman’s Blues No. 2”

By Joel Francis

Merle Haggard was on a roll in 1969. In just three years he had racked up seven No. 1 hits and released eight albums. Haggard’s days digging ditches and toiling in prison were finally receding, but he refused to forget the unlucky people he labored beside for so long. “Working Man Blues” was Haggard’s tribute to his fans and his roots.

More than 35 years later, Bob Dylan turned Haggard’s tribute into a personal homage. Abandoning the Bakersfield sound that Haggard helped popularize, Dylan’s “Workingman’s Blues No. 2,” is a nostalgic ballad, introduced by a piano and accented with touches of violin.

Haggard’s “Working Man Blue” is a blazing portrait of a hard-workin’, hard-drinkin’ man with nine kids struggling to make ends meet. In the prime of his career, Haggard’s hero might “get a little tired on the weekend, but “Monday morning, I’m right back with the crew.”

Dylan catches up with a similar blue collar man thousands of shifts later. Worn by hard work and tight budgets, the place he loves best is a “sweet memory.” Too tired to get his boots and shoes, all the weary man can muster is to try “to keep the hunger from creeping its way into my gut.”

Dylan matches Haggard’s detail, but also pulls the camer back a bit, opening with a portrait of “an evenin’ haze settlin’ over the town/starlight by the edge of the creek.” Doubling the number of verses and tripling the song’s length also gives Dylan to explore the weary worker’s love life. The nine kids have moved out and the wife is gone, leaving the fatigued to wonder “am I wrong in thinking/That you have forgotten me?” and imagining his love returning to lead him off to dance in a new suit and a world where he doesn’t have to live on rice and beans.

“Workingman’s Blues No. 2” is less a celebration of the working man than a compliment to Haggard, who toured with Dylan shortly before the sequel was written. At the time it was rumored Haggard would return the favor by penning “Blowing in the Wind 2.” That song hasn’t come to light, but pair of “Working Man” songs provide a perfect Labor Day soundtrack. Play Haggard’s at the outdoor cookout while clutching a cold one; save Dylan’s for some midnight, pre-shift soul searching.

(Below: Merle Haggard’s original “Working Man Blues.” Kick up your heels before the whistle blows.)

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