CHICAGO — Tom Morello says he rarely gets nervous anymore before he performs, in part because he’s done just about everything from rocking stadiums with Rage Against the Machine to participating in protest rallies around the world as a guitar-thrashing activist. But he does admit to feeling a little jumpy whenever he plays with Bruce Springsteen, as he did a few weeks ago at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas.
“I have to have one or two sips of (Irish whiskey) before I step on a stage with Bruce,” Morello says with a laugh.
Buzzed or not, Morello cut loose with a haunting, swooping guitar solo during “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” the highlight in an epic Springsteen concert spackled with guest stars and a moving tribute to folk singer Woody Guthrie.
“I’ve been playing that song sporadically with Bruce since about 2008,” Morello says, “and he’s always been very gracious with his arrangement — he leaves space for a 60-bar guitar solo! So I try to weave some melody through it, but I also try to tap into the angry ghost in that song, the historical ghosts, and give them flight.”
Guthrie’s “The Ballad of Tom Joad” was inspired by John Steinbeck’s Depression-era novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” and John Ford’s film of the same name, in which Henry Fonda plays the Joad character. Springsteen built an entire album around the themes of the song/ novel/ movie in 1995, “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” and Morello’s band Rage Against the Machine later covered the title track. The two performed the song at Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday concert in 2009.
“I came late to the genre of folk music,” Morello says. “I was a fan of heavy music — first metal, then punk, then hip hop. Then about 12 years ago it dawned on me that folk music — the music of Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs, early Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger — could be as heavy as anything that comes through a Marshall stack. The combination of three chords and the right lyrical couplet can be as heavy as anything in the Metallica catalogue.”
Morello is now doing his own Guthrie-esque folk-singer turn in his solo guise as the Nightwatchman.
“I discovered Woody primarily through Dylan and Springsteen, and now after digging into his music, you’d have to put him in the top five artists of the 20th century,” he says. “He’s certainly the first punk rocker. There is a certain amount of chaos in his personal life that I do not aspire to. He really did put his music and politics and whims before everything else. He had much greater responsibility to humanity than his family. But nothing was going to restrain him, neither the government nor corporate-sanctioned no-trespassing signs, not even the mother of his children, from doing what he felt was right, which was to reflect the stories of the 99 percent back to them in beautiful poetry.”
Morello says the Occupy movement surely would’ve welcomed Guthrie as a kindred spirit, and the folk legend’s songs remain a soundtrack for the countless protests Morello has joined over the decades. Some are documented in an ambitious “World Wide Rebel Tour” documentary, which the guitarist is making available for free on his Web site at www.worldwiderebeltour.com.
“The Occupy movement is not waiting to be blessed by rock stars,” Morello says. “I don’t go there as a leader, but as a participant. The movement has injected into mainstream discourse the dirty, unspoken five-letter word ‘class.’ The way corporate media likes to portray America is as a homogenous whole that high-fives each other at the Super Bowl. But what we have is a grotesque disparity between the rich and poor that is only getting wider.”
And music’s role in all this? “Every successful progressive or radical movement needs a great soundtrack. And it just so happens that many of them have been provided by people with an acoustic guitar.”