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2023/4 Albums Thing 339 - Bruce Springsteen “The Ghost Of Tom Joad”

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A largely acoustic album and a close relation to “Nebraska”. Tom Joad was the lead character in John Steinbeck’s story of the Great Depression, “The Grapes Of Wrath”, one of the caravan of Okies who headed for California to find work and a better life. This puts us back in a similar timeframe or feeling of time that “Nebraska” sits in, a time before…some of the ghosts that inhabited the landscapes of “Nebraska” are back again.

“The Ghost Of Tom Joad” also sits at an important point in Springsteen’s journey. He has gone through the struggling beginner phase and on to the hit records, global superstardom and then shedding of a skin (the E Street Band) periods and now here he is, looking back (?) and perhaps wondering where to go next. It can certainly be seen as a crossroads, his next studio album after this wouldn’t be for another 7 years and for that he was to be jolted into action by an event that has seriously scarred America and left its mark on the entire World. Springsteen has said that he thinks “Nebraska” is his best album and in his biography, “Born To Run”, confesses that this album picks up the thread from “Nebraska”. While he sits at his metaphorical crossroads he’s looking back at “Nebraska”, trying to (e)raise those ghosts ? 

“…Tom Joad” is looked upon as an acoustic or solo record but there are other musicians playing on these songs, many of them session musicians (the album was recorded while Springsteen was still based in California) but E Streeters Danny Federici, Garry Tallent and Soozie Tyrell contribute and Patti Scialfa adds backing vocals. Only 7 of the albums 12 tracks are truly solo Springsteen performances.

You can’t help but feel a sense of injustice hanging over the whole record and that is expressed forcefully on the title track. The first verse you could easily hear as being sung from the time of the Great Depression where Tom would see men wandering aimlessly, followed by cops, finding shelter and food under bridges, whole families displaced and living in their cars, all of them with “No home, no job, no peace, no rest”, like a musical re-tooling of John Ford’s 1940 cinematic telling of Steinbeck’s novel. But when we reach the chorus we are left in no doubt that what we are seeing is happening now. This isn’t Tom Joad retelling his story, these troubled times have returned, it’s now “I'm sitting down here in the campfire light, Searching for the ghost of Tom Joad”. It’s one of Springsteen’s greatest and most important songs, a song he has returned to and recorded more than once (the original album version, on an obscure folk compilation in duet with Pete Seeger, in a full band version with the E Street Band and Tom Morello, which we shall get to later on, and completely solo on the soundtrack to the documentary “The People Speak” based on Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” one of Springsteen’s favourite books), the only one of his songs to exist in 4 distinct studio versions.

The song has been widely covered by artists including Rage Against The Machine, Elvis Costello and Roger Waters. Springsteen has played it in various arrangements at some point on every tour he’s undertaken since this albums release (apart from, ironically, on a short Vote For Change tour in 2004) so it’s clear it has become a very important statement to the writer himself. In the 9 times I’ve seen Springsteen live he’s played “Born To Run” every time and “The River” 8  of 9 times making it pretty obvious he sees those as pivotal songs in his life. I’d put “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” right up there with those two in terms of importance in Springsteen’s cannon (but as he didn’t play it in Cardiff recently I’ve likely missed my chance to hear it live). It’s an absolutely incredible song in any of it’s incarnations and I urge you to have a listen to any or all of the versions I’ve left for you below (we’ll return for the full band version when we reach the album “High Hopes” in a couple of weeks time). 

“Youngstown” is another song that made it from this albums “acoustic” setting to the full E Street Band treatment on stage. Inspired by Dale Maharidge’s 1985 book “Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass”, Springsteen had read the book in one night when he couldn’t sleep just as he had finished, or so he thought, this album. The book chronicles the “hobos” riding the railways looking for work. But these are not Steinbeck’s “hobos” of the ’20’s and 30’s, these men were still doing this in the 1980’s ! The book inspired two new songs, “Youngstown” and “The New Timer” (one I’d recommend a listen to, it’s a lyrical and storytelling masterpiece), which Springsteen insisted must go on this album as they fit its theme so well. 

In “Youngstown” one of those ‘80’s “hobos” Maharidge had talked to in his book, Joe Marshall Jr, tells how the steel mills of Youngstown, Ohio supported him, his father and America until, in 1977, they were gone. The Jenny that Springsteen sings to in the chorus (“My sweet Jenny I’m sinking down, Here darling in Youngstown”) isn’t somebody’s wife or girlfriend but Jeanette, the 90 foot tall, 500 ton blast furnace at the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company that in its 69 year lifespan produced 11 million tons of steel and kept the people of Youngstown in work until it was decommissioned. “Youngstown” on this album is a beaten  down, weary and tragic song. By the time it was put into the hands of E Street Band it became, and still is, a defiant, raging howl at the injustices meted out to ordinary people…and you thought he just wrote about cars and girls ! 

“The Ghost Of Tom Joad” is a quiet, introspective album. There are no bombastic stadium rockers here. It’s made of subdued acoustic guitars, keyboards, pedal steel and fiddle, to my ears there’s something of a TexMex feel about it in places, which won’t be the only time I say that about a Springsteen record. The songs themselves are like poetry being read over the music. The power here is in the lyrics and the stories they tell of ordinary people, the brothers tempted into cooking up Meth for the Cartel in “Sinaloa Cowboys”, or the descent into prostitution and drugs for young illegal immigrants in “Balboa Park”, how the ex-convict in “Straight Time” is trying hard to keep his nose clean while still surrounded by his former life and the racism and tragedy of “Galveston Bay”. It’s not an easy record to listen to, it requires your attention and concentration, and I admit it is one I’ve struggled to fully appreciate even after 30 years. Within these songs are some of Springsteen’s toughest lyrics and most firmly held views. I’m not quite there with all of it yet but I plan to give it all the attention it requires until I am.

The Ghost Of Tom Joad - https://youtu.be/2Nbe2O-mJmc?si=gOY_fI-cB18T5NHG

The Ghost Of Tom Joad (with Pete Seeger) - https://youtu.be/NN0gy6fSRkU?si=-N-6F3ny1CDrRmim

The Ghost Of Tom Joad (Solo) - https://youtu.be/avDyB0B02jo

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