“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

Advertisements

Singing For Our Lives…

“If you are mesmerized by televised stupidity, and don’t get to hear or read stories about your world, you can be fooled into thinking that the world isn’t miraculous– and it is.” –Anne Lamott in Grace Eventually: Thoughts on Faith

Earlier this winter, Pete Seeger died. Pete was a folk music legend and a protester. The kind of man who sang stories of relentless optimism and agitation….of workers uniting, of Central American Freedom movement struggles, of nonviolent resistance and international disarmament, of caring for the environment, of his love for America and dream for what we could be as a country if we realized our interconnectedness.

Pete’s songs were songs of protest. Songs which refused to get into bed with the status quo. Songs which prophesied of a better way. Pete was prolific songwriter; he believed that folk music was the music of the people and it was meant to be shared and sung together. For him, singing was the way to stand in the moment and say: “here we are, standing here, fully human, fully alive, and demanding better, singing for our lives.”

For me, the space of optimism that Pete held in the face of injustice and oppression was what drew me to him. Much like Lamott’s quote, Pete saw the miracle in life because he was fully engaged in it. I’m afraid sometimes that all of our gadgets fool us into thinking that we are living, but really, we are experiencing a screen at best, and televised stupidity at worst.

Sometimes we have to remind ourselves to wake up. The old kick-in-the-pants routine. Wake up. Take control. Sing.

The busyness of life can lead to fatigue and a rote routine of daily decompressing by turning on the TV, scrolling through facebook, or watching the latest must-see You Tube video. We can end up consuming so much more than we create and this doesn’t work for the human spirit. It doesn’t ask us to be our best selves. We lose passion and purpose. And sometimes, our voices.

Have we lost the miracle of a sunset? Have we lost the miracle of the complex biochemical processes that must occur for an apple to be digested in our bodies? Have we lost the miracle of living in a community of people who know each others names, stories, and dreams? Have we lost the miracle of helping each other or working for a cause that is greater than ourselves? Have we lost the miracle of eating a fresh tomato from a garden that our hands toiled in? Have we lost the miracle of confessing our joys and concerns to each other? Have we lost the miracle of crying together? Have we lost the miracle of aching for our significant other? Have we lost the miracle of a drenching rain seeping into a scorched earth?

Have we become so disconnected with the earth and each other that we cannot feel anymore?

Being a human is a miracle. But if we forget that, we can one of the most destructive forces ever.

It’s easy to do with all of the notifications to keep up with. Sometimes, it’s easier not to feel, or examine our belief systems thoroughly, or wonder who are best selves really are. It’s easier to consume music than to create it. It’s easier to consume ideas rather than create them. It’s easier to ignore our dissimilar neighbor than to love her. It’s easier to live carelessly than to live consciously. It’s easier to keep tearing down trees as if we own this earth, than it is to plant them and work to help ecosystems thrive. It’s easier to ungraciously read biblical texts than it is to actually research them. It’s easier to criticize than to innovate. Its easier to turn on the TV instead of engaging in vulnerable conversation.

It’s easier, but it’s not better….because we are fooled into thinking that life isn’t miraculous.

And, it is.

This Country You

My good friend SaraBeth Geoghegan has been singing me through the years since we met in 2004. A few moons ago, I was able to make it to a concert where she introduced a new song, which now entitles this blog post. Browing and Davis IL-- Sept 2012 052Beautifully written, the song speaks to her ability to write music that puts into words many emotions which are difficult to otherwise verbalize.  You can check out SaraBeth’s site, here and I’d highly recommend it!

Here are a few selected lyrics from “This Country You,” which guide my post:

My train takes me into this country you,
to see the sprawling hills of people and places.
The face of your mother there in the field of irises
and in the aspen trees, your father smiles at me.
And I ride through, this country you.
I love the people here who take my hand, invite me in.
They speak to me with fire about living.
And I ride through, this country you,
I close my eyes and ride through, this country you.
And I never stop feeling wonder for the land, the people, the creatures in you.
I am Columbus in a brand new world,
the world that feels a lot like home.
And I ride through… this country you.
And I love this country you.

People, in and of themselves, are foreign countries. They are lands which house abyssal complexities, mysteries which are layered like Mother Earth’s crust. They are deep, for good reason, for it should not be easy to learn all of the roads in another’s country.

Relationships, whether they be romantic, platonic, familial, or friendships, connect with an unspoken covenant to allow the other to ride through you. To allow the other party admission into your soul, the country that you have created, is a large task and honor indeed. What will they see? And will they identify; will they approve? We allow them in and we hope that they come in peace and treat us with tenderness.

A modern English word for this is the dreaded “v” word…

Vulnerability.

It can be frightening to let down those maximum-security walls you have constructed for the express purpose of emotional, spiritual, mental protection. We have those for good reason; some folks cannot be entrusted with entrance into all things you. But some can and are not given the chance.

It’s hard to remember how beautiful, and I do mean beautiful, it can be to know someone. For them to have invited you and you to have gently accepted. To explore everything that makes them who they are with awe and wonder: the roads, the twists, the sunsets, the thunderstorms, the mountains: the good things, like joy, passions, knowledge, inspirations, hobbies, grace, kindness, and spirituality and the bad, like prejudice, fear, shame, malice, and loneliness.

If someone in your life has given you that privilege, please, don’t take it lightly. It’s a beautiful thing, a rare thing, a necessary thing, to be let into someone. It’s what humans deeply long to have. It’s the stuff that gets remembered, much more than the tangible things of this earth.

And the funny thing is, when we do this, even though we feel like foreigners, we often find that we are home.

So today, I close my eyes, and I ride through this country you.

*******************************

Where have your travels taken you and what stories do you have to tell?

Sing To Me

“Without music, life would be a mistake.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

What is it about music that changes us? How can it take us to another dimension of love and depth of emotion?

Music is that thing that doesn’t necessarily take away our weariness or solve the day’s problems. But when that song comes on, the one that resonates with us, who we are deep down meets who we think we should be and for a few moments, those two entities are the same. Equal. This resonance is essential for our health.

“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”
― Bob Marley

What is that one song that will take you away? The one that draws you back into beautiful memories and makes you hopeful for such experiences in the future?

“If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution.”
― Emma Goldman

Which song makes you remember the reason you get out of bed each morning? Which one makes you want to change the world?

For me, folk music stirs. Oh it stirs me. Nicknamed “The People’s Music,” folk is full of activism and stories passed down through the generations. Stories of advocacy and culture, stories of social cohesion and historical events, stories full of poetry and metaphor. Many folk songs have no copyright; they are meant to be shared collectively, sung together around tables and fires, creating a dimension between humans which could not be otherwise achieved without the rhythmic notes. It is not commercial music. It is the music of the people. The people protesting. The people hoping. The people praying. The people fighting the government and large corporations. The people unified with decency and love. Folk is Woody Gutherie. Folk is Pete Seeger. Folk is Ani Difranco.

“Everything in the universe has a rhythm, everything dances. ”
― Maya Angelou

What is that song that you can let loose to? The one that makes you dance like a fool?

Each of us has a song deep down. We sometimes forget the words and what it sounds like, but it is there. Loving someone deeply means sharing your song with them so they can sing it back to you when you’ve forgotten the words.

What’s your song? And why is it yours? Was it played at your wedding, your graduation, during a difficult or joyful time? Share it with me in the comments section. I’d be totally honored to know.

I will sing with you tonight.