Deportees, Woody Guthrie, and Why I Became a Folksinger
Saturday, October 2, 2021
I hope this finds you well.
In the words of the Grateful Dead - What a long strange trip it’s been!
I have my first LiveStream concert in several months, TONIGHT! After taking much of the summer and early autumn off from online appearances and actually performing some joyful live concerts in various parts of the US, it’s back to YouTube Live for a spell.
You are invited to join in tonight at 7:30 PM Eastern (Please adjust for your time zone), for an evening of music co-presented with Soup & Song Concerts. This was intended to be an in-person event. But caution being the better part of valor these days, we decided last month to go online for tonight’s event. Enjoy!
Soup & Song presents: Joe Jencks In Concert: Saturday, Oct. 2nd 2021 at 7:30 PM Eastern
YouTube Live Link: https://youtu.be/_AVeVh-cwfk
Below is an article I wrote recently for the Madison Folklore Society about Woody Guthrie, Marty Hoffman, the song Deportees, and how profoundly it influenced my decision to become a Folksinger. On November 2nd 1883, Emma Lazarus wrote: Here at our sea washed, sunset gates shall stand a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightening, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon hand glows worldwide welcome.
May it be so. May we strive to make that vision a reality in policy and practice.
Have a great weekend!
~ Joe Jencks (10-2-21)
The Story of Deportees & Why I Became a Folksinger
Copyright 2021, Joe Jencks, Turtle Bear Music
I was 8 years old and laying on the floor in my parents dining room. I liked music. And I liked music louder than many people in the house, especially my mom. But we came up with a compromise. In the absence of headphones or even a stereo that had a headphone jack, I would lay on the floor with a couch pillow under my head and one speaker on either side. I could bring the speakers in very close to my ears and listen at a satisfying volume, while bothering no one else in the house.
I listened to a lot of music back then. Everything I could get my hands on. As the youngest of a family of seven kids, I had a wide array of musical tastes to choose from in the house record collection, and I explored them all. From 78s of Enrico Caruso and Duke Ellington, to 45s of the Motown era, to 33 & 1/3rds of James Taylor, Supertramp, Olivia Newton John, and ABBA. Dan Hill, Jim Post, Karen Carpenter, John Denver, and various Disney musicals were equally common. From Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique to the The Who’s Tommy, from Jethro Tull to the original London cast recording of Jesus Christ Superstar, I was a voracious consumer of music of any kind. And then something happened that created more focus in my musical tastes. I was given a copy of Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie’s double album, Together In Concert, by one of my older sisters.
Interestingly enough, my recollection was that the album was recorded in concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. But in this information age, no myth need go unopposed. And a little bit of research reveals that it was in fact recorded at several different live shows in Chicago, Boston, Montreal, and elsewhere. Just like the song on that album that made me want to become a folksinger, my own origin narrative was incomplete. But a little research into the matter set the record, so to speak, straight.
In 1948, Woody Guthrie read a newspaper article about an airplane crash in Los Gatos Canyon in California, that inspired some verses of poetry. Woody delivered the poetry set to various melodies, but most often in his talkin’ blues style for many years. It was called The Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Canyon). But in 1957, a young man named Marty (Martin) Hoffman who was at the time a student at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins Colorado, took Woody’s words and wrote a fresh melody. Hoffman was an English major, Folksinger, an aspiring educator, and a member of the CSU Balladeers. After a Pete Seeger concert in Ft. Collins in 1957, Marty met Pete at an after party to which the CSU Balladeers had been invited. There he played the song Deportees for Pete Seeger for the first time, and Pete loved it. He asked permission to record it, and credited Hoffman and Guthrie as co-writers, since Woody had never settled on any specific melody and Marty’s melody was haunting, powerful, and was appropriately inspired by a Mexican style waltz.
Fast-forward to 1980, and an 8-year-old me laying on the floor in my parent’s dining room. I had only recently learned to play guitar. Another sister had taught me some chords on my guitar – a gift from some family friends who had moved out of town. I LOVED my guitar, almost as much as I loved listening to records. So, naturally I would listen and then figure out how to play along with the recordings, and eventually to play the songs on my own without the recordings. Deportees was one of the very first songs I learned to play off of a record. And it made me want to do what Pete and Arlo were doing for a living. From then on, when people asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, my answer was almost always. “I want to be a Folksinger!” (I also wanted to be an astronaut and a forest ranger. It remains a marvel to me that becoming a Folksinger ended up as the most pragmatic personal choice.)
In 2017, Tim Z. Hernandez - a poet, writer, educator, historian, and activist published a book, All They Will Call You, about the Guthrie/Hoffman song, and the 32 people (28 deportees and 4 crew) who died in the airplane crash in Los Gatos Canyon back in 1948. In 2012 and 2013 Hernandez conducted research with help from musician Lance Canales, to find the full-names of these 28 individuals and to make sure a proper stone was placed on the mass grave in Fresno, CA where the remains of the “deportees” were laid to rest. He wanted all of us in this day and age to see that a name matters.
In a 2013 interview with NPR Tim Z. Hernandez said, “It all comes down to the same idea of why it matters that their names are even brought up. You know, here we are, 65 years later. I mean, at the end of the day, right? Our names are really what represent who we are. They're our stamp on the fact that we've existed here, at one point. And obviously, too, names are about lineage, where we come from, the culture we come from, who we are. So in that same way, then, accuracy is pretty important, in terms of, at least, my book; it's very important. And so I'm trying to find out not only who they are, exactly, but where they came from.”
The names of those famous and no longer anonymous Deportees: Miguel Negrete Álvarez. Tomás Aviña de Gracia. Francisco Llamas Durán. Santiago García Elizondo. Rosalio Padilla Estrada. Tomás Padilla Márquez. Bernabé López Garcia. Salvador Sandoval Hernández. Severo Medina Lára. Elías Trujillo Macias. José Rodriguez Macias. Luis López Medina. Manuel Calderón Merino. Luis Cuevas Miranda. Martin Razo Navarro. Ignacio Pérez Navarro. Román Ochoa Ochoa. Ramón Paredes Gonzalez. Guadalupe Ramírez Lára. Apolonio Ramírez Placencia. Alberto Carlos Raygoza. Guadalupe Hernández Rodríguez. Maria Santana Rodríguez. Juan Valenzuela Ruiz. Wenceslao Flores Ruiz. José Valdívia Sánchez. Jesús Meza Santos. Baldomero Marcas Torres.
And this is why I became a Folksinger, so that I could be a part of speaking truth where I am able, being a prophetic voice that asks the big questions even when there are no obvious answers. To use music as a tool for shining light where it is needed, bringing nourishment of the soul to those who thirst for it. To return names to those whose story has become anonymous and therefore more easily forgotten and dismissed. To bring healing and tenderness when that is the medicine most needed. I wanted to sing a lullaby to comfort some to sleep and wake others up! I wanted to be in various measures part journalist, minister, historian, activist, and entertainer; to be a part of telling our stories. Though I did not know it at the time, I became a Folksinger because 24 years before I was born, the overt racism and classism of the time prevented people from bothering to care about the names of the people who died on that “air-o-plane” as Woody used to pronounce it, when it crashed in Los Gatos Canyon.
I do not believe that I was thinking in quite such broad terms when I was only eight. But we know truth when we encounter it, even as children. And after hearing Deportees, there was no going back to the Disney of the day. I wanted to be a part of the community of people who were truth-tellers. In more elemental terms, I wanted to help other people feel how I felt when I listened to or sang that song. I wanted to give other people the sense of compassion and connectedness I felt when I listened to that music. I wanted to be a part of that music. And I am grateful that my life has taken me in a direction where I am able to do just that. I am a part of the music as surely as it is a part of me. And we are a part of the story, just as surely as the story is a part of us.
When I wrote, Lady of The Harbor back in 2010, The United States / Estados Unidos was dealing with yet another immigration crisis. I wanted European-descended Americans to consider the inherent hypocrisy of celebrating our culture as a culture of immigrants who sought out a new world, to live in a place free from oppression. In so doing, we certainly and ironically created plenty of it here. But in addition to telling the truth as I saw it, I also wanted to honestly celebrate my own family history as immigrants from Ireland, Canada, France, Sweden, Alsace Lorraine, Wales, and other places spanning a few centuries.
And now, now we see new challenges and mis-steps regarding immigration. Policy blunders and human tragedy met with political rhetoric and more deportations of more people whose names will never be known to most of us. And the reasons why those names will not be known are the same reasons why those other names were unknown in 1948. Racism, classism, sexism, and colonial-cultural supremacy. They are now the names of people who are Afghani, Pakistani, Afro-Caribbean, Haitian, Dominican, Latino/Latina/LatinX. They are people who deserve compassion, people fleeing violent and oppressive situations, radical poverty, and they are seeking asylum. They are people who more often than not are still seen as statistics, as other, as less-than. They are seen as problems to be solved in the abstract, rather than other human beings deserving of equal access to human rights and civil rights.
It took from 1948 to 2017 for the broader story of the people in Woody Guthrie & Marty Hoffman’s song Deportees/ The Plane Wreck at Los Gatos, to be known. But music played an integral role in keeping the story alive for some future historian/herstorian to bring back to the forefront. And music plays an integral role in documenting the times we live in now. No song can tell the whole story. But I am so grateful for the songs we have that guide us on a journey of exploration, both into the past and into our own hearts. And that journey of exploration is critical because music has a unique power to open our hearts in ways that ofttimes an article or a news story does not. Music conveys some unique sort of soul with it, that allows us to see some piece of ourselves in others, and some piece of them within ourselves. May it be so!
And as we approach the holiday formerly known as Columbus Day, now Indigenous People’s Day, may our hearts be filled with compassion, and our minds open to a willingness to untangle our own attachment to origin stories that may not be accurate. We are who we are. We live where we live. But our story is not the only story, and there were people here before us of many cultures and races. There will surely be many people here after us of many other cultures and races. We are neither the beginning nor the end of the story. But we are a part of the story. And we have an opportunity through Folk music and the broader arts communities, to help set some pieces of the story in greater alignment with both historic and present time truths. Every piece of the puzzle counts in the big picture. And the music we love can help paint that picture with an eye toward greater inclusivity and more detail.
I am grateful to those who came before us, and for their efforts to document the world they experienced first-hand. From love songs to work songs to stories like The Plane Wreck at Los Gatos. I am grateful to those people who left some part of their story behind for us to learn from, contribute to, and pass forward to the next generation of story lovers.
Songs change lives. That’s why I became a Folksinger. And I am grateful to have a life steeped in the songs of many generations and cultures.
~ Joe Jencks (10-2-21)
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