Guthrie's Ghost

The Nation, 1995-12-11, by: David Corn
At a recent benefit concert, Bruce Springsteen dedicated his final song to the "Gingrich mob" that is creating a more divided nation. He then played "The Ghost of Tom Joad," the title track of his new album. This haunting cut is an unemployed homeless man's lament: "Welcome to the new world order/Families sleepin' in their cars in the Southwest/No homes no jobs no peace no rest."

Under a highway bridge, by a campfire, this fellow searches for the spirit of Tom Joad, the son of the Depression-scarred clan of The Grape of Wrath who is radicalized by the injustice he and his kin encounter. The album is infused with a profound empathy for the working-class citizens and immigrants who have no place in Newt Gingrich's America. In "Youngstown," a down-and-out former steelworker says, "Now sir you tell me the world's changed/Once I made you rich enough/Rich enough to forget my name." Springsteen chronicles the plight of undocumented Mexican farmworkers recruited by drug dealers for the deadly task of mixing methamphetimines. He sings of those driven to leave their homeland. At a time of increasing income disparity--when the right distracts with immigrant-bashing--Springsteen, rock and roll's populist, offers an eloquent reminder of what economically dispossessed angry white men and desperate brown border crossers share.

The music is as stark as the terrain he contemplates. It is eerily quiet, mostly his voice and acoustic guitar, perhaps a bit thin for commercial tastes. The album is reminiscent of Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads, recorded in 1940. (That collection contained a song about Joad and two tracks that Springsteen covered on a Guthrie tribute album almost a half-century later.) Guthrie sang about his own experiences; his work was an authentic folk enterprise. Springsteen lives in a mansion, but he's able to break out of his celebrity bubble to document the lives of those among whom a modern-day Guthrie should be traveling. Springsteen is not of his subjects, but he reads the newspapers--does so damn well--and he gives a hoot. Where else in popular megaculture are the nightmares of the American and immigrant poor recognized and granted sympathy? Gracefully Springsteen bears witness--in the religious sense--to the harshness and injustice he sees rising like a bad moon.

The title cut sets to music one of the most progressive moments in American fiction and film--Tom Joad's farewell, when he tells Ma that she'll always be able to find him "Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries/Where there's a fight 'gainst blood and hatred in the air....Wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand." In an electronic newsletter run by Springsteen fans, one of the devoted writes, "I think Bruce is saying...American economics are headed back to the way they were in Tom Joad's day. The only way we can prevent it is if we become the ghost of Tom Joad ourselves." A song that carries such a message to millions is a note of hope.