Friday, July 22, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Ghost of Tom Joad

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “The Ghost of Tom Joad” by Bruce Springsteen. Tom Joad is a character from The Grapes of Wrath and the song is a bit of a nod to Woody Guthrie’s “The Ballad of Tom Joad”.

In the novel, the Joads were tenant farmers forced off the land in Oklahoma who set out for California. Upon arriving, they find a huge labour surplus that employers take horrific advantage of. Family Friend Jim Casy works as a union organizer (while the Joad clan works as scabs) and Tom Joad sees Casy beaten to death. Joad kills Casy’s killers and, long story short, the whole story ends rather depressingly.

Springsteen’s song reveals how little has changed for economically vulnerable people since the 1930s. Some become desperate enough to do anything to survive (and, for that, are criminalized) while the rest just disappear from society and our consciousness.

I picked a Mumford & Sons/Elvis Costello cover of the song so you could hear the lyrics a bit better (although this Springsteen version is amazing).

Men walkin' 'long the railroad tracks
Goin' someplace there's no goin' back
Highway patrol choppers comin' up over the ridge

Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretchin' 'round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin' in their cars in the Southwest
No home no job no peace no rest

The highway is alive tonight
But nobody's kiddin' nobody about where it goes
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
Searchin' for the ghost of Tom Joad

He pulls a prayer book out of his sleeping bag
Preacher lights up a butt and takes a drag
Waitin' for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last
In a cardboard box 'neath the underpass

Got a one-way ticket to the promised land
You got a hole in your belly and gun in your hand
Sleeping on a pillow of solid rock
Bathin' in the city aqueduct

The highway is alive tonight
Where it's headed everybody knows
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
Waitin' on 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."

Well the highway is alive tonight
But nobody's kiddin' nobody about where it goes
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
With the ghost of old Tom Joad

-- Bob Barnetson

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