this morning i woke up with springsteen’s the ghost of tom joad in my head, and so decided to pull out the record and give it a listen. it’s a record i heard a lot in my mid 20’s, and then put away at a certain point. this morning as i listened to it i sort of…got it. in a different way.
in my mid-late 20’s springsteen was a sort of god of mythic proportions. i’m past the point of thinking that any slight or criticism to the boss is blasphemous. there’s a clear line in his discography for me, or a couple of them. i don’t care for the pre- born to run records, and everything post tunnel of love starts to miss for me, with the exception of the ghost of tom joad. however, i don’t really feel the need to slag him off, so i’ll make no mention of rage against the machine or tom morello or any of that nonsense, because i consider it nonsense. but that’s neither here nor there.
the ghost of tom joad is a really remarkable record, for a lot of reasons, reasons that never really occurred to me in my 20’s. if you look at this record in context not only to springsteen’s discography, but to the mid 90’s when it came out, it’s pretty incredible. this record came along after springsteen had become an uber-star with born in the usa, after he’d parted ways with the e street band and left new jersey to move to l.a., after he’d put out his first two records in decades to receive less than hero-worship level reactions. this record also came out in 1995, not only was this an acoustic, political folk record smack dab in the middle of the noisey grunge era, it was also just one year after nafta and one year before the 1996 immigration reform act. most of the record was inspired by current day news stories that springsteen read in the morning paper. the record tells stories of ex-convicts, illegal immigrants, border policeman, and the sad state of small town usa. it’s a completely riveting record, but put it in context and it has an almost eery quality to it. and oh, things were about to get much, much worse.
this record is a testament to springsteen’s incredible storytelling ability. gone are the working class hero anthems, but in their place are quiet stories of a different kind of down on their luck american. as much as springsteen needs a cause, he needs characters. what makes him such a successful storyteller is that there is a separation between him and his characters. springsteen is a triple libra, he has such a gift for getting into the stories of other people like a really great actor does and delivering their perspective. he is sort of an intellectual empath, he can understand different sides of things without putting his own emotional issues in the mix. he is almost the greatest narrator ever, while still speaking in the first person of his characters.
springsteen has always had the gift of storytelling, but the evolution hit a pretty wonderful place with the ghost of tom joad. with records like born in the usa, darkness on the edge of town, the river, nebraska, and born in the usa, springsteen drew a lot from the people around him. while springsteen never knocked up his high school sweetheart and worked at the factory to support his family, he saw his childhood friends and family in these situations and pulled from their experience. while they weren’t his own, the stories were close to his heart. when you get to the ghost of tom joad and the mid-nineties, you see springsteen at a very different place in his life. he’s decades and miles from small town jersey. there is enough of a separation to allow him the space to really get into things quite removed from him, things like mexican ranchers and bank robbing ex-cons.
that the record opens with and is titled “the ghost of tom joad” is quite powerful and quite brilliant. it immediately calls your attention to the grapes of wrath, to the dust bowl days and the great depression, and to woody guthrie. it draws comparisons to bush sr.’s new world order and the new world order past. it talks about a hopeless american no longer riding the rails but forced to sleep in their car, searching for the ghost of tom joad, for the spirit past. it sets the tone for the topical songs that follow. immigrants cooking meth, border patrolman falling for illegals, cocaine smugglers, and the promised land that didn’t deliver. while the comparisons are there, they are extremely subtle. springsteen is not calling out direct parallels or pointing fingers, this would come later. with this record he seems to be simply saying that time marches on. what is interesting is that the record is so quiet, these stories are quite heavy, but they are delivered almost with a whisper.
it is interesting how that delivery weighs in. springsteen has never been a pessimist. even his most down-trodden characters had a sense of hope, if not lyrically than in the anthemic quality of the songs. springsteen has always been the champion of his characters. but with the ghost of tom joad there is a sort of lost hopelessness to them. this is a fairly dark record, and it ends on the note of “my best was never good enough,” one of springsteen’s most pessimistic songs ever, putting to bed all of the hopeful cliches. springsteen would find a cause with 9/11 and the bush era and come back to anthemic hope with the rising and devils and dust, but the ghost of tom joad comes out of a lost era. there were no heroes and no real controversy. the economy was up, there were no defined wars, the lines were blurred, but there was something in the air. somewhat of a presentiment, for the shadow of what was coming, but also a sense of the unspoken or unrecognized abuses and injustices that were alive and well beneath the surface. this record captures that.
what occurred to me this morning was the juxtapostion between just how much the context of this record matters, and yet, doesn’t matter. you see, this record opens with tom joad, with john steinbeck and woody guthrie and those heavy ghosts, and takes you through the state of america in the 90’s, and yet, does not date the record to that time. in its quiet way it tells you that in fact, nothing has changed. from the great depression to the “greed is good” reagan years, to bush senior’s new world order, to the effects of nafta and the war on drugs and immigration reform, well, here we are in 2014 and really, what has changed? in this way springsteen truly is the ultimate storyteller. he gives you the ranches of stockton and the closed steel mills of youngstown, the policeman and the criminal, all of the different sides to the story, and each with a subtle pride and pain of their own, and yet his only statement or opinion is in the collection. he puts it out there for you, whispers these stories in your ear, and leaves them there to hang in the air. and they do. they still resonate, a decade later. perhaps more than they did when they were released. the ghost of tom joad is a truly great folk record, one to do woody guthrie proud.