The highway is alive tonight
So baby do not be frightened
There’s something about a pretty girl on a sweet summer night
That gets this boy excited
— Bruce Springsteen, “Seaside Bar Song,” 1973
Well, the highway is alive tonight
But nobody’s kidding nobody about where it goes
I’m sitting down here in the campfire light
Searching for the ghost of Tom Joad
— Bruce Springsteen, “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” 1995
For the title track of his 1995 album The Ghost of Tom Joad, Bruce Springsteen recycled an old line of his (perhaps unintentionally) in a dark way, and brilliantly used a classic literary/cinematic reference.
In his 1939 Dust Bowl novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck created the Tom Joad character, who, near the end of the story, leaves his family, possibly never to see them again, and tries to comfort his mother with the thought that our souls are all “a piece of a big one,” and that whenever people are fighting against injustice, “I’ll be there.” Steinbeck’s words were used with only minor changes in the 1940 movie “The Grapes of Wrath,” starring Henry Fonda as Joad (see clip below).
Springsteen’s song sounds, at times, like it could come right out the 1930s. But it’s set in the 1990s, when homeless and poverty remained persistent problems:
Shelter line stretching ’round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleeping in their cars in the Southwest
No home, no job, no peace, no rest
(The “new world order” is a sarcastic reference to President George H.W. Bush’s optimistic use of that phrase, several years earlier.)
It’s in this context that the song’s narrator is searching for (and, later, “waiting on”) the ghost of Tom Joad. Springsteen adds more details: people living “in a cardboard box ‘neath the underpass,” for instance). And, in a master stroke, he has Joad himself (or his ghost) appear, and give a new version of the famous Steinbeck speech, poetically re-written to fit into the song.
Joad says, in part:
Where there’s somebody fighting for a place to stand
Or a decent job or a helping hand
Wherever somebody’s struggling to be free
Look in their eyes, Mom, you’ll see me
I considered this song one of Springsteen’s best ever when it was first released in 1995. Then I was pleasantly surprised, in 2008, when Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine joined Springsteen and the E Street Band at a show in Anaheim, and helped turn it — fittingly — into something far more musically stormy. (listen below)
Morello and Springsteen have played it together, like this, many more times since then. And like Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” the reworked version now seems more definitive than the original one.
Background facts: “The Ghost of Tom Joad” was the title track of Bruce Springsteen’s 1995 album, and also came out as a single. In 2008, Springsteen released a live version, featuring Morello, on his Magic Tour Highlights EP. He then released a new studio version with Morello on his 2014 album, High Hopes.
Springsteen also recorded a duet version with Pete Seeger for the 2007 album, Sowing the Seeds: The 10th Anniversary, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Appleseed Recordings label. (see below)
According to Brucebase, Springsteen performed “The Ghost of Tom Joad” 450 times between 1995 and 2018. Of new songs from the 1989-2019 time period, it’s the third most performed, after “The Rising” and “Land of Hope and Dreams.”
On each of the 70 days leading up to Bruce Springsteen’s 70th birthday (on Sept. 23, 2019), NJArts.net will do a post on one of The Boss’ best songs of the last 30 years. We’re starting with No. 70 and working our way up. For more on the project, click here.
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