Plane Wreck at Los Gatos Canyon: Chris Mahin Remembers Woody Guthrie & A Song of Solidarity

 [We originally posted this article in 2012. In 2017, we are finding this a good time to revisit it, and Chris Mahin brought it up to date. Chris wrote: “January 28 marks the anniversary of a great tragedy in 1948 which inspired an eloquent plea for justice for undocumented immigrant workers   . . . below is an article that I wrote about the plane crash at Los Gatos, California for a union website. The article was written several years ago. I have revised it slightly, but its message is needed today more than ever. Feel free to share it with anyone you think might be interested in seeing it.” This article is adapted from an essay written on the 60th anniversary of the plane wreck that inspired Woody Guthrie’s immortal song].

January 1948:

Tragic death of immigrant workers

inspires a song of solidarity

The fire began over Los Gatos Canyon. It started in the left engine-driven fuel pump. The plane crashed 20 miles west of Coalinga, California, on January 28, 1948. It came down into hills which, as one commentator noted, at that time of year are “a beautiful green, splendid with wildflowers … a place of breathtaking beauty.”

There were 32 people on board that day, but the names of only four were recorded for history. The newspaper articles about the crash describe an accident involving a Douglas DC-3 carrying immigrant workers from Oakland, California to the El Centro, California Deportation Center. Those accounts give the name of the plane’s pilot (Frank Atkinson), and co-pilot (Marion Ewing). They mention the name of the stewardess (Bobbi Atkinson) and the guard (Frank E. Chapin). However, the newspaper stories do not include the names of any of the 27 men or of the one woman who were passengers on that flight, victims who were buried in a mass grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno, California. The newspaper reports simply dismissed them as “deportees.”

One visitor to the crash site described the scene this way:

“I was born and raised in Coalinga and can remember going to the crash site the day after the incident. My father, older sister, and I viewed the crash and even though I was about six years old at the time, I can remember it as if it happened yesterday. It was a cold and damp day and even though the reports were that the site had been cleaned up, this was not the case. The sadness of seeing the meager possessions of the passengers and the total lack of respect by those who had the task of removing the bodies will be something I will never forget or forgive.”

Three thousand miles away, a man who had himself once been forced to leave his family to look for work took notice. Musician Woody Guthrie left his birthplace in Oklahoma during the Great Depression and then did plenty of “hard traveling” before ultimately ending up in New York. He was outraged by the callous indifference of the news stories which couldn’t be bothered to mention the names of the workers who died in the crash. Out of his anger came a song – “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee),” a ballad in which he assigned symbolic names to the dead:


Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,

Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;

You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane,

All they will call you will be “deportees” …


Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,

Our work contract’s out and we have to move on;

Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,

They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves …


The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,

A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,

Who are these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?

The radio says, “They are just deportees”


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”?


The song, as Woody Guthrie wrote it, was without music; Guthrie chanted the words. “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)” was not performed publicly until 10 years after the plane crash, when a school teacher named Martin Hoffman added a haunting melody and Woody’s friend Pete Seeger began performing the song in concerts. The song’s eloquent plea for justice for immigrant workers has stirred the conscience of fair-minded people in the United States ever since.

Often referred to simply as “Deportee,” the song’s continuing broad appeal can be seen in the fact that it has been recorded by wide variety of artists. Among the musicians who have covered the song have been Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Bruce Springsteen, as well as the Irish musician Christy Moore and the English singer Billy Bragg. The list also includes the Kingston

Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston

Trio; Cisco Houston; Judy Collins; The Byrds; Joan Baez; Arlo Guthrie; Sweet Honey in the Rock; Hoyt Axton; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Roy Brown Ramirez, Tito Auger and Tao Rodriguez-Seeger; and Paddy Reilly, among others.

January 28, 2017 marks 69 years since the plane wreck near Los Gatos Canyon. The lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s song about the disaster sound as if they were written just days ago, not more than six decades in the past. (This is especially true of the verse “They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.”)

The great labor leader Mother Jones once said that we should mourn for the dead and fight like hell for the living. On this 69th anniversary of a terrible loss, we should pay special heed to the appeal for the unity of all workers which rings out so beautifully from Woody Guthrie’s song. Today, we can honor the dead of January 28, 1948 best by speaking up in defense of the living immigrant workers of today – regardless of documentation status — and by demanding that the rulers of this country cease their cowardly attempts to use the immigration issue as a wedge to divide the workers of this country.


Chris Mahin


[Click the links in the names of the performers above in order to listen to some of the versions of “Plane Wreck”;  there are no Woody Guthrie versions available on you tube, and the closest to an original is the Cisco Houston version, with extra benefit of Cisco’s sonorous, velvet voice]

Film Showing & Discussion: King and Chicago Then And Now

King and Chicago:  Then and Now
Sunday Jan. 15
7:15- 9 pm @ Mess Hall
6932 N Glenwood (@Morse Ave)On the occasion of Martin Luther King’s birthday, city of Chicago politicians may decide this week that the kind of protests, for which Dr. King is famous, will be illegal. Occupy Rogers Park has our own plan to celebrate this important date. We begin a series of educational programs with King in Chicago, a video presentation and discussion of Chicago then & now, similarities and differences, race and class, featuring

• Allen Harris: journalist and member of Occupy the South Side,

• Joe Peery: Founding member of the Chicago Gary Area Union of The Homeless in 1986. Led effort to fill public housing’s empty units with homeless during the 1980s and 1990s. Formerly a Youth Organizer in Cabrini Green. Former resident of Cabrini Green. Currently a reporter for the People’s Tribune. Currently a resident in the mixed income housing that was built to replace Cabrini Green and fighting the unequal apartheid like treatment of CHA residents residing there.

Dinnerluck/potluck precedes program, which begins at 7:30 sharp, Mess Hall, 6932 N Glenwood just south of Morse. Presented by Occupy Rogers Park, in conjunction with Mess Hall.

Our Fight For Your Freedoms 2012 — Update From Chris Drew

“C Drew” <>
Our Fight for Your Freedoms in 2012

Thank you for following our achievments throughout the year. I am Chris Drew, the volunteer Executive Director of the Uptown Multi-Cultural Art Center for the past 24 years. I work for you without pay. Our ground breaking lawsuit against the Chicago peddlers license is soon to be filed. The stakes are high. Your help is needed to make Chicago more friendly to artists.

Cindy is not her name but her story is common in Chicago. She is an artist facing poverty, out of a job, prolific, but unable to sell her art in public. Even with a peddlers license her opportunities are limited because there are no art scenes where she is able to sell her art. When she ventures out, she finds herself confused by the public with the homeless who they are used to seeing on the streets of Chicago. The homeless have won their First Amendment rights to meet the public in Chicago while artists have not. In the few marginalized areas of Chicago where the peddlers license allows her to sell, she is not joined by other artists in a vibrant street arts scene. The public sees her as a lone figure against a bleak cityscape and pass on by. She is unable to survive, as she should, by her art in Chicago because street art culture has been killed by unfriendly laws and prohibitive park policies.

Remember Lee Godie – the lady who became famous selling her art in front of the Art Institute? Chicago outlawed her activity the year she died, 1994, by requiring a peddlers license that defined the sidewalk before the Art Institute and most of the best locations in Chicago as prohibited areas. There have been few, if any, artists legally surviving by selling their art in public in Chicago since that time. Chicago’s cultural character is largely hidden. We envision a future art Mecca of street art scenes showcasing Chicago artists in public with myriad opportunities for artists to survive by their creative activities. Chicago’s streets should bloom with art and culture every spring.

How badly do we need change? When I tried to challenge the constitutionality of this peddlers license law by selling art for $1 in public the State attempted to put me in prison for up to 15 years using the unconstitutional Illinois eavesdropping law. I didn’t back down. In Illinois we don’t have the right to gather the evidence of what police say to us in public to defend ourselves in court. My actions are resulting in a move to change this law in Springfield this year that will bring Illinois in line with the rest of America allowing you to audio-record your police in public in Illinois. We are creating change with pure guts. We are winning real freedoms for you. Now we are also going forward with our lawsuit to increase artists’ rights to sell art in public, as we originally intended.

Our peddlers license lawsuit, that we will present to the court soon, will spearhead a smart direction in the national legal debate over how to determine what art deserves First Amendment protection. In our study of the case law on artists’ rights to sell art in public, we have discovered major flaws in the judicial attempts to define what art is protected by the First Amendment. There is division between differing Federal Circuit

screen print workshop

Court decisions on how to define the art which is protected by the First Amendment when it comes to the sale of art in public. We have gathered scholastic arguments for a new way for the courts to determine what art is protected.

Throughout all this turmoil of legal battles over your rights we have continued to conduct our free Screen Print Workshop for Artists. This workshop teaches artists the basics of screen printing using the least expensive and least technical methods providing them with another tool to better survive by their art. Our Art Patch Project to educate Chicago on artists rights is an on-going growing exhibit of art printed on cotton patches. We print the designs submitted to us by artists supporting our fight for their right to sell art in public and give them away to the public. Exhibits of this growing body of artwork are being prepared to travel around Chicago and other cities to increase the awareness of our movement. These two effective community art programs are a solid basis for the creative change we are engaged in. They deserve your support all by themselves.

Stay tuned for more details in our fight to support greater freedoms for everyone and artists in the new year. Support our pioneering efforts at changing Chicago and America to make them more friendly to artists in the future. Donate to the Uptown Multi-Cultural Art Center. We are a most effective, all volunteer arts non-profit making change by supporting and promoting the art and artists of our communities. Make a tax deductible donation now. Change Chicago and Illinois. The freedoms we fight for belong to you.

Chris Drew


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Uptown Multi-Cultural Art Center | 1630 W. Wilson Avenue | Chicago, IL 60640

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Danny Alexander Occupies 2011 And Music

This is Danny Alexander’s sum up of the year, his Occupation as a music writer and political thinker.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 in Review: My Occupy 25

I hate making year end lists. I’m a slow listener, for starters. And other than superficial run-ins with the radio, I tend to listen to one thing at a time. Once I get into some music enough to write about it, I don’t look up much until the writing’s done.

I reviewed about 22 albums in 2011.  Since my I-Tunes lists about 22 new album releases a month, I’ve deeply listened to (and this is being wildly generous to myself) at most 1/12th of the music high profile enough for a (let’s call it) national conversation about the state of our music.  Since about half of what I’ve listened to is regional and not likely to be listed in I-Tunes new releases, it’s safe to guess I’m listening to less than 1/24 of what we might talk about in a year-end review.  So, while I’m sometimes asked to do those things, I’ve never seen it as a gauge of what mattered most that year.  It’s what mattered most to me, which is, at best, an argument for the importance of some things others might have overlooked or undervalued.

But, then, I do have a desire to sum up the year, in some way that makes sense in terms of how I work.  I started writing about music as an act of rebellion- . . . Read More Here