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Martin O'Malley Strums and Sings of Farmworkers, Highlighting Immigration

Demcoratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley, still hoping for a change in his bottom of the polls standing, talks about singing a protest song.
Image: Martin O'Malley
Democratic presidential candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, plays his guitar during a rally with supporters before the state Democratic party's Jefferson-Jackson fundraising dinner Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)Charlie Neibergall / AP

Into a presidential campaign, a little music must fall, and along with campaign trail songs, Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley added his rendition of a song about the deaths of migrant workers in a 1948 plane crash.

A guitar player since age 17, O’Malley introduced Latino members of his staff to "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos," the Woody Guthrie poem, set to music by Martin Hoffman. The lyrics protest the lost lives of the crash victims and the mass burial of 28 farmworkers, without their names at their gravesite or in news of the crash.

“I’ve been aware of the song for a long time and with Latino staff on my campaign, I said, 'Have you ever heard this piece?'” O’Malley explained. “I pulled up the song on the iPad and they kept the camera rolling.”

His rendition was recently posted by staff on Facebook as a commemoration of the one-year anniversary of President Barack Obama's executive action that would shield from deportation millions of immigrants in the country illegally. The programs are stalled by a court battle.

Some of the workers on the doomed plane were guest workers under the Bracero program and had finished their contracts, some on the plane had entered the country or stayed in it illegally and were being removed from the U.S.

The workers’ names remained unknown until poet, author and performer Tim Z. Hernandez tracked them down with the help of others and performed to raise money for a memorial headstone. The gravestone listing each victim was erected in 2013, 65 years after the crash.

The song has been sung by many artists: Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, John Cash and others. O’Malley said it crept into the Irish music genre through folk singer Paddy Reilly.

O’Malley said the song has lessons for today’s political environment around immigration and the acceptance of refugees from Syria.

“I think it becomes so easy to lose sight of the human beings and families involved when we talk about comprehensive immigration reform and even Syrian refugees. There’s a kind of namelessness that accompanies the globalization of indifference,” O’Malley said in a telephone interview with NBC News Latino Monday.

O’Malley said the poem and song does a nice job of “stripping bear the anonymity, of the falsehood that some of these migrant workers are not human begins and don’t have names.”

“I think the beauty of our country is that through all sorts of different years and movements of histories and influences, whether its in civil rights or new American immigrants, there is this yearning in our country for full participation, for inclusion, for recognition,” O’Malley said.

“The belief at the core of it is the same, the belief that we share as Americans, that all are created equal and the dignity of all persons,” he said. “That’s the value here that (GOP frontrunner) Donald Trump misses. It’s a belief we affirm sometimes through conflict and sometimes through a lot of pain.”

Around Thanksgiving there will be reminders that American food is often planted and harvested by a workforce that consists of workers who overwhelmingly lack legal status in the country.

“One of the truths we lose sight of as Americans is we would not have a lot of the food on the table were it not for migrant workers, something important to remember at this time of Thanksgiving,” O’Malley said.

O’Malley’s views on immigration have found strong support from some immigration activists. But it has yet to serve as a springboard for a higher showing in the election polls. He has remained in single digits and has been a distant third to frontrunner Clinton and to Sanders.

“There’s always an inevitable frontrunner,” O’Malley said, blaming the limited debates and an attempt to delay the debate schedule. He added that it’s still early.

He vowed to continue to “speak to where our country’s going” and not accuse immigrants of taking jobs as he said Sanders has done or to speak out of both sides of his mouth on immigration, which he accused Clinton of doing.

He expressed optimism about his potential showing in Iowa and New Hampshire. “I think we’re going to surprise people coming out of Iowa.”

O'Malley has brought out the guitar other times during the campaign. A search in YouTube turns up videos of his range – from a rendition of Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" in Nashua, N.H. to a playful jam of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood" on The View.

O’Malley said he hasn’t yet learned any “corridos,” popular songs in Spanish that often tell a story, some written about migrants and crossing the border.

But he sees a role for his guitar-playing in his campaign, even if, as he said, “some would debate if I can play guitar.”

“I think music is a great leveler and we feel so much alienation and distance from our leaders that music breaks down all barriers,” he said. “It’s an international language that helps cross the divide, party or distance or race.”

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