One of Woody Guthrie’s most timeless songs, unfortunately…
Like most people, I first heard this from Pete Seeger, since although Woody wrote the lyric, he never sang it. He wrote it as a poem, which was set to music by Martin Hoffman, a student at Colorado State University, who sang it for Seeger in 1957 at a party after a concert in Fort Collins. (Hoffman would go on to be an early inspiration for Judy Collins, who wrote a song for him after his death in the 1970s.)
The poem was inspired by news reports of a plane that crashed near Coalinga, California, on January 28, 1948, carrying a group of 28 Mexican migrant farm workers who had come to the United States as part of the bracero program and were being deported. The dead were buried in a mass grave, with a headstone naming the members of the Anglo crew, but not the Mexicans — hence, “you won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane.” Woody added some names, to personalize the people who died, but only in the last few years have the actual names been publicized, thanks to a poet, writer, and performance artist named Tim Z. Hernandez.
Hernandez is working on a book and documentary film, All They Will Call You, about the crash, the song, and the stories of the people who were killed, and there are numerous articles on the web giving more information about his project, such as this one. Hernandez’s family came to the United States as migrant workers, and he has made it his mission to find descendants of the people who died in the crash, as well as letters and photographs. He was also instrumental in getting a new headstone placed at their grave, with all 28 names:
Miguel Negrete Álvarez – Tomás Aviña de Gracia – Francisco Dúran Llamas – Santiago Elizondo Garcia – Rosalio Padilla Estrada – Tomás Márquez Padilla – Bernabé Garcia López – Salvador Hernández Sandoval – Severo Lára Medina – Elias Macias Trujillo – José Macias Rodriguez – Luis Medina López – Manuel Merino Calderón – Luis Miranda Cuevas – Martin Razo Navarro – Ignacio Navarro Pérez – Román Ochoa Ochoa – Ramon Paredes Gonzalez – Guadalupe Ramirez Lára – Apolonio Placencia Ramirez – Alberto Carlos Raygoza – Guadalupe Rodriguez – Maria Rodriguez Santana – Juan Ruiz Valenzuela – Wenceslao Ruiz Flores – Jóse Valdivia Sánchez – Jésus Santos Meza – Baldomero Marcos Torres