I just watched a great cover of Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” by Elvis Costello and Mumford & Sons, which they mashed up in the middle with Woody Guthrie’s “Do(ugh) Re Mi”.
Costello says early on that the combination is appropriate because both songs are about the Great Depression in the US, the dust bowl, the 1930s and ‘40s. But this is actually a mistake, one that others have made as well.
Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” is not really about the ‘30s and ‘40s: lines such as “highway patrol chopper comin up over the ridge” and “welcome to the new world order” place it in today’s world, or the 1990s at least.
As I read it, Tom Joad vanished at the end of The Grapes of Wrath and now, 40 or 50 years later, the singer is sitting under a bridge with the homeless and hungry, tasting the “blood and hatred in the air”, and “waiting on the ghost of Tom Joad”. By the last verse, he is no longer “waiting,” he is “with the ghost of old Tom Joad.”
The song echoes what Tom promised Ma Joad at the end of the movie: “Wherever somebody’s strugglin to be free/ Look in their eyes Ma, you’ll see me.”
And sure enough, by the end of the song Tom Joad has appeared. Preacher Casey shows up as well. The ghost of Tom Joad is there, as he promised, with the migrants and the refugees, with all those who are poor and hungry and exploited. Their struggle for survival, and in the longer run their fight for a better world, is the same as the struggle that the Joad family went through in The Grapes of Wrath.
Maybe this is or maybe this isn’t what Springsteen and, later, Tom Morello and Pete Seeger saw in this great song. It’s what I read into it, and I think if you overlook these ideas, it’s like listening with one earphone and hearing only the treble, you miss out on the best part of the song.