Monday, September 5, 2011

Bruce Springsteen - "The Ghost of Tom Joad" (the song remains the same)

A Labor Day special...

Here's the condensed version of the conversation I've had dozens of times with some of my European friends: Bruce Springsteen is an activist / protest singer in the tradition of Woody Guthrie, but his songs are written with such a distinctly American, individualistic perspective that the message of struggle, hope & despair, and identity is often obscured, if not completely misunderstood.

In contrast to some of his more indirect songs, "The Ghost of Tom Joad", the title track from the 1995 LP of the same name, is one of Bruce's most overtly political songs. The blistering message is tamed by Bruce's muted, acoustic delivery; it was Rage Against the Machine two years later that realized the inherent, well, "rage" of the narrator against forces so complex and overwhelming that individuals must succumb. In Bruce's songs, the hero can often overcome through sheer force of will (e.g., "Badlands", "The Promised Land", "Thunder Road", "Born to Run") -- or at least believes he can. In "The Ghost of Tom Joad", the hero is bleakly aware of his futile state:
Men walkin' 'long the railroad tracks
Goin' someplace there's no goin' back
Highway patrol choppers comin' up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretchin' round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin' in their cars in the southwest
No home no job no peace no rest

The highway is alive tonight
But nobody's kiddin' nobody about where it goes
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
Searchin' for the ghost of Tom Joad
Tom Joad is of course the main character and anti-hero in Steinbeck's 1940 novel "The Grapes of Wrath", which tells the fictionalized story of the Joad family's travels from Oklahoma during the dust bowl to California in search of a land, jobs, and a better life. Instead, they find California is controlled by corporate farmers, in collusion with each other as well as local law enforcement to ensure an ample supply of cheap, unorganized labor. In short, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's dream.
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."
Bruce Springsteen: studio version, live in the studio 2009

Bruce Springsteen & Tom Morello: live 2009

Rage Against the Machine: 1997 single version, 2000 LP version, live 1999 version, fan video

"The Grapes of Wrath": New York Times Review, ReThink Review

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