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Monday, November 30, 2009

Everybody Might Just Be One Big Soul

 "The Ghost of Tom Joad"

"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.'"

"The Ghost of Tom Joad" is the title cut from the eleventh studio album (1995) by Bruce Springsteen. Most people realize that Tom Joad is the protagonist of John Steinbeck's 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath. The impact of Steinbeck's work continues to help color an important pigment of the American poor.

Set during the Great Depression, the novel focuses on a poor family of sharecroppers, the Joads, driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, and changes in the agriculture industry. In a nearly hopeless situation, they set out for California's Salinas Valley along with thousands of other "Okies" in search of land, jobs and dignity. The result is the stark confrontation with the impossibility of any realization of their dreams. California is not the land of "milk and honey" for the unfortunate Joads.

In response to the exploitation of laborers, the workers begin to join unions.The surviving members of the family unknowingly work as strikebreakers on an orchard involved in a strike that eventually turns violent, killing the preacher Casy and forcing Tom Joad to kill again and become a fugitive. He bids farewell to his mother, promising that no matter where he runs, he will be a tireless advocate for the oppressed.

In the end of the novel, the dreamy teenage daughter turned mature woman, Rose of Sharon, whose baby is still born, commits the only act in the book that is not futile: she breast feeds a man too sick from starvation to eat solid food, still trying to show hope in humanity after her own negative experience. 

A film version starring Henry Fonda, in turn inspired the famous folk singer Woody Guthrie to pen “The Ballad Of Tom Joad.” In an attempt to capitalize upon the success of the movie version of The Grapes of Wrath , Victor Recording Company asked Guthrie to write a song about the movie. At the house of Alan Lomax (famous folk historian and folk preservationist), Guthrie listened to "John Henry" by the Carters “so many times that he wore the shellac from the record.” (Ed Cray, Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie, 2004)

According to Joe Klein and Pete Seeger, the narrative song, a seventeen verse ballad, was written in New York one night by Guthrie with the aid of a friend's typewriter and a gallon of wine.The song was recorded by Guthrie in RCA Studios, Camden, N.J. in April 1940. It was sung to the tune of "John Henry." Guthrie's song ends with the following:

"Ev’rybody might be just one big soul
Well it looks that-a way to me
Everywhere that you look in the day or night
That’s where I’ gonna be, ma
That’s where I’m gonna be

Wherever little children are hungry and cry
Wherever people ain’t free
Wherever men are fightin’ for their rights,
Thats where I’m gonna be, ma
That’s where I’m gonna be"

Springsteen had read the book, watched the John Ford film of the novel, and heard the Guthrie song before being inspired to write his song (and album) "The Ghost of Tom Joad." The result was true to Guthrie's tradition. (Mark Allan Jackson, Prophet Singer: The Voice and Vision of Woody Guthrie, 2007) Springsteen is said to have identified with 1930s social activism and sought to give his voice to "the invisible and unheard, the destitute and the disenfranchised." (Jeffery B. Symynkywicz, The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen: Rock and Redemption, from Asbury Park to Magic, 2008)

The rest of the album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, is set in the early-to-mid-1990s, with contemporary times being likened to Dust Bowl images. Symynkywicz relates, "Even President George H.W. Bush's 'New World Order' gains ironic mention, as in the contemporary demographic migration to the Southwest United States." The chorus makes the allusion:

The highway is alive tonight —
But where it's headed, everybody knows.
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
The Ghost of Tom Joad is essentially a modern day folk album exploring the underbelly of society. Although Springsteen is a huge, wealthy star, he can explore the depths of the American working class soul so well. His music challenges all to face and understand poverty and the downtrodden.
Joshua Wolf Shenk of Washington Monthly (Jan-Feb, 1997) says Springsteen's music is about the struggle to engage - ourselves, our families, and the larger community with which we are bound. "Economic injustice," he said in a 1987 interview, "falls on everybody's head and steals everyone's freedom. Your wife can't walk down the street at night. People keep guns in their homes. They live with a greater sense of apprehension, anxiety, and fear than they would in a more just and open society."

Charles Taylor (, November 23 1995) reported, "The focus (of Springsteen's work) is often on immigrants, who, Springsteen knows, have become our new scapegoats. The title's reference to the hero of The Grapes of Wrath draws a parallel between the Depression and today. The Mexican brothers of "Sinaloa Cowboys" who cross the border and work as migrant fruit pickers might be right out of Steinbeck, if Springsteen didn't collapse five decades in the course of a few lines and have the brothers wind up cooking methamphetamine." The details make explicit the meaner side of the world in which this album takes place.

Thanks to social stratification, many never rub shoulders with those whose thrift-store clothes are a necessity. Their lack of experience with the poor gives them no reminders for remorse. And, those who do have the opportunity to mingle with those on the "wrong side of the tracks" often choose to ignore the plight of the less fortunate. Selfish reasons for inaction and unconcern are cheap and popular.

However, the art -- the novel, the film, the song -- giving life to the Joads is impossible to avoid and unforgettable when encountered. The irony is apparent: the association with fiction is stronger than the needs of reality. Still, doesn't the important artistic message require a reactionary change in its human audience?

For nearly four decades Bruce Springsteen has been a rock & roll working-class hero: a plainspoken visionary. A fervent and sincere romantic, Springsteen's insights into everyday lives — especially in America's small-town, working-class heartland — have earned him these lofty comparisons to John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie. Fictional character Tom Joad or musical artist Bruce Springsteen -- "look in their eyes, Mom, and you'll see someone strugglin' to be free." And, thank God someone is continuing to sharpen that crystal reflection.

"Poor men wanna be rich, rich men wanna be kings, 
And a king ain't satisfied till he rules everything."        
 -- Bruce Springsteen

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