… Now Tom said “Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there’s a fight ‘gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I’ll be there
Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin’ hand
Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me.” …
– John Steinbeck
These are the three Springsteen albums you need to own: Nebraska, Devils and Dust and this weeks contribution, The Ghost of Tom Joad. There are plenty of other songs by Bruce that I’m fond of, Streets of Philadelphia to name one but you could probably find them on a compilation disc somewhere and be satisfied with that. These are the Albums that i believe he will be remembered for and that i feel you need to listen too in their entirety.
John Steinbeck’s 1939 Pulitzer winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath is the needle on which this quilt is fashioned. I found it a bit surprising that he credits the movie from 1940 with Henry Fonda taking the role of Tom as the source for his inspiration, rather than the novel. Either way it’s been a rich source of inspiration for many artists ranging from Woody Guthrie who Springsteen holds in reverential high regard (as opposed to Dylan who i always felt was less than genuine when citing him as a mentor) to Rage Against the Machine. It’s impossible to listen to this album without talking politics and for me without taking a side. Bruce Springsteen is a great liberal, lending his voice to numerous causes over the years but this is probably his most overtly political album to date. It was released in 1995 with Clinton in the Whitehouse. A time of prosperity for most with America so busy in its self-congratulatory smugness that it was blind to the growing divide festering away like cancer in its backyard.
It’s into these muddy waters that the GOTJ was quietly released.
The lyrics and Bruce’s softly spoken delivery are everything to this album. I’m amazed when i look up the tablature at how basic most of the songs are. “G” and “C” and “D” chords, the same that a million tunes are built around but here crafted into the most keenly observed and haunting songs that I’ve had the delight of listening too. Despite the simplicity of the song structure he does subtle little things with the strumming and the timing, that you don’t even realise are there till you dig down a little. Despite all this it’s the stories fleshing out each track, rather than the music that i found captivating.
The world contained within each of these song is one populated by those that have fallen by the wayside. First victims of chance then trapped by their own circumstances.
Bad luck, poor choices and fate conspiring to limit their options, so that in the end, life is shrunk down to a matter of survival. Yet there are the faintest patches of sunshine within that bleakness. The barest intimations of hope, as tremulously expressed in songs like Across the Border. But even here, with its gentle lilting melody and uplifted voices you are holding your breath as if not wanting to jinx fate.
For the most part the people inhabiting these stories are lost souls. Compassionately chronicled but living in the wilderness none the less. Like Vladimir and Estragon, the two central characters of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, life is in abeyance.
It’s a weird convergence but I’ve been engrossed in SBS’s Go Back to Where You Came From which is one of those rare instances where television has value. One of the many pertinent points the documentary makes about the refugee experience is the debilitating effect of living for years, decades even in a state of limbo.
The central core of the album is the three middle songs that deal explicitly with the plight of illegal Mexican immigrants: Sinaola Cowboys with its prophetic warning “… for everything the North gives it exacts a price in return…”. The Line with it’s evocative closing words “… lookin’ for my Louisa with the Black Hair fallin’ down … “. and Balboa Park which is just plain, damn, sad.
Either side of those three songs there are musical gems. Youngstown is as good a template for a protest song as any. My Best was Never Good Enough is full of wry wit and masterfully composed. He throws one enigmatic line in at the end “… Come on pretty baby call my bluff …” which skewers the whole syntax of the song. Straight Time is close to a favorite, it’s a novel in its own right. And of course the title track The Ghost of Tom Joad is Bruce at his literal finest. It’s as full an arrangement as he will deliver on this album and that’s saying something as even here with full band backing the music is sparse and muted. I guess by comparison to The New Timer it’s positively orchestral because he strips that song back as far as a song can go.
The landscape painted in The Ghost of Tom Joad is a desolate one and there is little hope of a way back. Bruce’s evocation of Tom only underlying the point that the marginalised have been well and truly forgotten, when their only salvation is the echoed fragments of a text from half a century ago and the Ghost of an activist for their voice.
I wanted to add a clip i found on YouTube of a live performance of this song. Rage Against The Machines, Tom Morello guests on guitar. His solo is just incendiary. It infuses the song with the anger that was always there beneath the surface of the Album version