Saturday, April 16, 2016

Bruce Springsteen - The Ghost of Tom Joad

The Ghost of Tom Joad, the album, is Bruce Springsteen’s eleventh studio album and was released in 1995, so this is a later day piece of music from the Boss.

Springsteen has always held strong left leaning political beliefs and this translated into the messages of his music with some reoccurrence throughout his career and to no surprise this only became more and more important to him the older he became. What I find very endearing about Springsteen is his passion for sticking up for the less fortunate, and while most of us would normally consider the political left as compassionate for the poor and minorities in the chaos that is political discourse we often find a lot of hypocrisy and contradiction, however the Boss has always been very consistent in these two overall simple messages, socialism is good, and caring about other people is worthwhile, with a strong focus on the later. We need not even presuppose political signalling from Springsteen as he often writes songs about compassion for a wide range of people, such as homosexuals in “Streets of Philadelphia” and professional wrestlers “The Wrestler,” two very different groups of humans with very different problems, and there is nothing necessarily political about either of those two songs. When we talk about the song “The Ghost of Tom Joad” we are affectively talking about both endeavors simultaneously, because the people in need in this song are the poor, so we are talking about political considerations that actually consider everyone, and the struggles of people worthy of our empathy.

“The Ghost of Tom Joad” has a very obvious literary reference but I did not pick up on it right away, in fact I was introduced to the song and album before I was introduced to the literature, but I suppose this is yet another example of my musical knowledge preceding my literary knowledge. I read John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” recently and instantly, on page nine to be precise, our protagonist reveals his name to be Tom Joad, and I paused and thought “where have I heard that name before?” It was very easy to piece together the order of inspiration soon then after.

Henry Fonda as Tom Joad from
1940's "The Grapes of Wrath."
For those who do not know “The Grapes of Wrath” tells the story of very poor Oklahoman family heading to California to find work because the banks have taken over all the land they used to own. Tom Joad was recently released from prison and is the eldest child of the Joad family, though his father and uncle are still alive Tom very much functions as the head of the family, with Ma Joad very much taking second in command in many ways. Tom Joad was in jail for murder, and while he is not a violent man he never backs down from anybody and he is constantly standing up for what is right instinctively, and we are led to believe the person he killed was a result of a combination of Tom trying to do the right thing and accidently using too much force and killing the man while subduing him. The point is the character Tom Joad is always eager to help, and his willingness to put his family first combined with his ability to get things done, ever dirty things like killing a man, makes him a natural leader of his family, also something of an interesting loose cannon.

In “The Ghost of Tom Joad” by Springsteen the chorus is as follows:

“Well the highway is alive tonight,
But nobody's kidding nobody about where it goes,
I'm sitting down here in the campfire light,
Searching for the ghost of Tom Joad.”

Why the ghost of Tom Joad? Well when you get to the end of “The Grapes of Wrath” Tom has a little speech to his mother that explains the significance of his ghostly presence in Springsteen’s song:

“Tom laughed uneasily, ‘Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one-an’ then-‘”

‘Then what, Tom?’

‘Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where-wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.’

At the end of “The Grapes of Wrath” Tom Joad realizes that if he really wants to make a difference for his poor family then he has to stand up for all poor families, it is not enough to help the Joad family along when the whole situation is against everyone. He makes this unusual promise to be there whenever anyone needs the hard helping hands of Tom Joad. He indirectly indicates he intends to help with the unions and help the working people, and he intends to do what he can to stop the police when they actively prevent folks from trying to better their lives. Basically Tom Joad swears to be a socialist hero somehow everywhere to everyone.

Springsteen capture’s this message in this verse:

“Now Tom said,
‘Mom, wherever there's a cop beating a guy,
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries,
Where there's a fight against the blood and hatred in the air,
Look for me, Mom, I'll be there.

Wherever somebody's fighting for a place to stand,
Or a decent job or a helping hand,
Wherever somebody's struggling to be free,
Look in their eyes, Ma, and you'll see me.’"

The parallels between Steinbeck’s word and Springsteen’s are very obvious when comparing these two parts and it makes sense that Springsteen would invoke the character of Tom Joad and the final symbolism his character is meant to represent. “The Grapes of Wrath” was originally published in 1939, right at the tail end of the great depression. “The Ghost of Tom Joad” was released in 1995, where poverty was, and is, still an ongoing issue and Springsteen, being the caring individual that he is, refers to the folk hero of Tom Joad and his promise to be there for all of us struggling and writes this great song about searching for that endearing and everlasting spirit of charity and assistance.

It is possible that Springsteen has some additional specific meaning when he sings about searching for the ghost of Tom Joad, but more than anything a general truth, where is the compassion in government, but also ourselves? Again it is very possible I am missing something specific Springsteen is attempting to stab at, but the left leaning Springsteen is likely actively calling for a variety of social programs and improvements to help the downtrodden, however the idea of a single man, appearing everywhere to help when needed, that sounds an awful like Springsteen himself. In many ways Bruce Springsteen is a real life Tom Joad, I wonder if he is aware of that.  I am sure if it were logistically possible Bruce Springsteen would literally be there whenever a cop is beating up some guy or hungry babies crying.

- King of Braves


Rage Against the Machine did a cover of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” that was very popular as well:

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