Music

Bruce Springsteen's 'The Ghost of Tom Joad' Calls Out to Us

From the cover of The Ghost of Tom Joad (Columbia, 1995)

Bruce Springsteen's 1995 album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, inherited and built upon some powerful 20th century American literary, political, and pop culture themes. Can we hear its haunting call in these times?

The 2019 Bruce Springsteen release Western Stars (Columbia) is seen by some as another of his introspective solo albums, but that summation is too easy, too dismissive. It is a character-driven collection of songs about the open road and prairies and lost dreams expressed through a variety of characters. It's also an outlier amongst Springsteen's "solo" albums. Technically, 1982's Nebraska was (and remains) his most pure and stark solo effort. It features a title track about a serial killer. Desperation is heard in songs "Atlantic City", and "Highway Patrolman", the latter inspiring the 1991 Sean Penn film, The Indian Runner.

Springsteen's 2005 album, Devils and Dust is a collection of songs dating back to1996. While its title track chillingly evokes the first-person life of a troubled soldier returning from service in Iraq, the album is not a fully cohesive collection of songs. Brilliant, beautiful, and chilling, the 12 songs comprise a prelude to something else, like orphans looking for a better home.

It's The Ghost of Tom Joad, the solo album released betweenNebraska and Devils and Dust, that remains riveting and strong nearly a quarter-century after its 1995 release. Consider what happened with Springsteen's music during that era. Born In The USA (1984) made Springsteen the prototypical American rock stadium icon of the era. Springsteen and his E Street Band toured incessantly and disbanded by decade's end. Springsteen's Human Touch and Lucky Town, both released in 1992, already seemed dated the moment they came into the world. He toured and made several TV appearances with an assortment of musicians that backed him up rather than assume a distinct identity of their own, and the act seemed tired. In the early '90s, almost 20 years after his 1973 debut as a recording artist, he'd become an oldies act.

Marshall Amp by tookapic (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

By 1995, Springsteen and the E Street band reunited for a Greatest Hits set that included the recording of four new songs. Rather than record an entire collection of new songs, release it, and tour with his band, Springsteen instead offered The Ghost of Tom Joad. The album has a dozen songs that remain special to this day. It begins with the title track, an evocation of Tom Joad that draws more from John Ford's 1940 film version of John Steinbeck's 1939 The Grapes of Wrath than the novel itself. It ends with the dismissive "My best was never good enough", in which Springsteen evokes Forrest Gump touchstones.

What was it about Steinbeck's Tom Joad that spoke to a Depression-era America in 1939, an economically depressed America in the mid-'90s, and to anybody today willing to fight against the notion that the poor will always be with us? That Springsteen "admitted" to not having read the Steinbeck novel before writing a song based on its main character was played off by some outlets like "gotcha" journalism. But inspiration comes to those who are open to it. The pontifications of Henry Fonda's Tom Joad near the end of The Grapes of Wrath seem made to spark the fire of balladeer (Woody Guthrie), up through Rage Against The Machine, whose guitarist Tom Morello joined Springsteen for a brutal live take of what had been a relatively calm in the studio production.

In "Straight Time", the unnamed hero has been released from prison. We hear the standard tropes of an ex-con trying to walk "the clean and narrow". He gets a job that will take him from where he was to where he could be, but it's not enough. His uncle makes a living doing things under the table, in the dark shadows of commerce, and he helps out when and where he can. The story continues through different characters in his life trying to help him maintain stability, but the only solace he can find is at night, drifting off to sleep. "I got a cold mind to go tripping across that thin line", he sings in the chorus. "I'm sick of doing straight time".

The hero in "Highway 29" could very well be the same guy. Here, he's a shoe salesman. He's tempted by a female customer who slips him her number. Images of John Garfield and Lana Turner in Bob Rafelson's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) surface. Or maybe Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944). Both are noir films featuring malice-hearted women eager to find weak-willed men. Notice the economic way Springsteen wraps up the main action as he starts the second verse:

It was a small town bank/ It was a mess/ Well I had a gun/ You know the rest/ Money on the floorboards, shirt was covered in blood…

The best writers need to inhabit their characters, not simply mimic their observed actions to create a simulation. In "Sinaloa Cowboys", Springsteen takes his time to tell the story of drug runners, street dealers, and enforcers. The amphetamine operations concocted by our heroes (Miguel and Luis) take a predictably dark turn, but the song isn't exploitive. It isn't cheap. In "The Line", the hero is a border patrol officer who knows enough to understand that his job can be a pure cycle of futility.

…They risk death in the deserts and mountains/ Pay all they got to the smuggler's rings/ We send them home, and they come right back again…hunger is a powerful thing

"Happiness" is relative and conclusions will usually always be definitive and terminal. In "Balboa Park", characters named X-man, Cochise, and Little Spider (among others) come north to California, smuggling cocaine balloons ("poison in their blood") for a chance at something new, something better than what they had back home. None of these songs in the middle ("Sinaola Cowboys", "The Line", "Balboa Park") are sonically exciting.

The hero in "The New Timer" is a wanderer looking for purpose as he rides the rails. Deep into the song, he sees a vision of beauty (a woman relaxing in her house), a child with his father, and he wonders "…does my son miss me/ Does he wonder where I am?" In "Galveston Bay", Springsteen writes about the Vietnamese population in the title location working as shrimp harvesters and dealing with the Texas Klan. Nothing is bright, adversities are many, and the strength is in the perseverance of the people.

Dale Maharidge's Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass" (with photos by Michael Williamson) (Hyperion, 1996) works as both a modern extension of the classic James Agee and Walker Evans Depression-era text, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and an inspiration for Springsteen. In Journey to Nowhere, Maharidge and Williamson traveled across America, from Youngstown, Ohio to Portland Oregon down to San Antonio and back again. The book speaks to the dispossessed of Reagan's America and speaks even more clearly today, almost a quarter-century after Springsteen's experience with it led to a re-release (with a new Introduction by the singer/songwriter) and the songs "New Timer" and "Youngstown". It's the latter, with its evocation of a dying steel industry, that leads the character to chillingly admit in the final verse:

When I die I don't want no part of heaven/ I would not do heaven's work well/ I pray the devil comes and takes me/To stand in the fiery furnaces of hell

What those lyrics lack in ambivalent subtlety they make up for in certainty.

If there is one track of pure beauty and hope on The Ghost of Tom Joad, it's "Across the Border", Springsteen's best attempt at an American anthem if there ever was one. It's a riveting prayer for the promise of something better coming after the character crosses over to the other side.

For what are we/ Without hope in our hearts/ That someday we'll drink from God's blessed waters/ And eat from the vine/ I know love and fortune will be mine/Somewhere across the border

It's notable that this is the only track with backing vocals, all women, like a chorus of angels supporting a character singing about sweet blossoms and "pastures of gold and green" and cool clear waters on the other side of the Rio Bravo's muddy waters. All the standard tropes are there, the innocence and purity of a character wishing for a better tomorrow. Coming to this song with cynical ears misses the point. We have gone through the darkness. Now, here's our reward.

Springsteen has recently finished a successful run on Broadway (Springsteen on Broadway Walter Kerr Theatre, New York City, October 2017), and released an orchestral pop record (and accompanying documentary film) Western Stars, that draws from the lush sounds of Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson, Glenn Campbell and Jimmy Webb. News that Springsteen is planning to record again and tour with the E Street Band in 2020 should come as no surprise to long-time fans. The Ghost of Tom Joad drew from John Steinbeck, John Ford, and Woody Guthrie and in turn inspired Rage Against the Machine. What it might do for those willing to listen today is anybody's guess.

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