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Tom Joad Lives In The Grapes Of Wrath

Tom Joad is like Joe Hill. Both have songs written about em and both are immortal, Joad living among the oppressed, Hill among the organizers. Both were Union supporters. But Joad is a fictional character, the protagonist of great American novelist John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath. The story of a man returning from prison who joins his family as they travel from Oklahoma to California during the great depression.  It aint Steinbeck’s masterpiece  East Of Eden but it sure aint a slouch. there’s a great movie starring Henry Fonda.


And its protagonist Tom spawned songs. Woody Guthrie’s excellent “Tom Joad” , a straight up retelling of the Grapes story : “Wherever little children are hungry and cry, wherever people ain’t free., wherever men are fightin’ for their rights, that’s where I’m gonna be, Ma. That’s where I’m a gonna be.” It’s all dust bowl vocals and dry spit harmonica. Covered by folks like Ramblin’ Jack  Eliot and Country Joe McDonald.


In the 90s Springsteen wrote the folkie answer song “The Ghost Of Tom Tom Joad” om didn’t die at the end of Grapes Of Wrath but perhaps Springsteen is concerened with tthe ghost of Tom’s memory. “Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand or decent job or a helpin’ hand, wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free lLook in their eyes Mom you’ll see me.”


Compared to the similar folkie charged “Devils And Dust” Joad is a masterpiece and “Joad” the song sounded like a minor but important addition to the canon. Rage Against the Machine covered it on Renegade in 2000 and worked it over but good though how the average Boss I can’t tell you. Bruce musta liked it because on Bruce’s 2008 Magic Tour he invited Rage leader Tom Morello on stage, indeed introduced him “as a close personal friend”. This is the version that has pushed Joad to the forefront of the Springsteens recorded work. If you listen to the live version available on Itunes you’ll know precisely why this deep rock number stands out and it isn’t all Morello’s hardcore rethinking of the rock guitar solo. Springsteen, like the highway he sings of, “is alive tonight”.

Last Thursday Morello was was again front and center at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fames 25th Year Anniversary concet. This time it was Morello’s guitar that pushed the version over the top. I can’t wait for you to hear it (and see it) later this month. It was one of those moments when your heart seems to leap into your mouth.

As far as the song itself go’s, “Joad”, Guthrie, all those dust bowl Okies, and everybody concerned with how money feels in their pockets, have much more relevance today than five or twenty years ago and so many people are suffering perhaps we bring to it our own experiences and those of our friends and families. We share in Tom Joad’s haunting of those who are hurting.

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