“The Ghost of Tom Joad”

Sometimes, I am certain of little, but one thing that I do know is that folk music tells stories far better than I ever could. Singers like Woodie Gutherie, Pete Seeger, Ani Difranco, Joan Baez and so many more give music to the people by telling their stories of injustice, of struggle, of triumph. In the face of great odds against institutional racism, sexism, violence against bodies, heteronormativity, classism, ageism, they have sung in protest. It’s the music that keeps me going because I am reminded that I am not alone, but I am rather in the company of a great cloud of witnesses. For me, protest music is as sacred and sometimes more sacred than hymns. For me, it is holy music.

For that reason, tonight, I wish to share the story of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” written by the great Bruce Springsteen in the mid 90s. He says that it “was an attempt to regain my own moorings” and contains as its final verse the beautiful speech that Tom Joad whispers to his mother at the end of The Grapes of Wrath. He says that “the singer in my song is in search of the ghost of Tom Joad, the spirit that has the guts and the toughness to carry forth and live their ideals.”

I first heard this song when Bruce sang it at Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday party (see above link)… he called Pete Seeger the ghost of Tom Joad and spoke of many of the ways that Pete sung the People’s Music.

So I’d like to read this social justice ballad, this song of lament, this song of protest tonight. And in doing so, I remember and honor all the folks who have sung in protest for freedom.

Here it is:

”The Ghost Of Tom Joad”

by Bruce Springsteen, 1995, Columbia Records

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

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