I'm going to cheat just a little here. On three counts actually. This is of course a song Springsteen wrote, not covered. It also isn't available as a 45 rpm but only as a rare CD single. I don't own the single but the album. But since Springsteen performed "The Ghost Of Tom Joad" yesterday with Tom Morello, guitar player from Rage Against The Machine, I figured it was a good excuse to take a closer look at this track. I'm eagerly awaiting the bootleg of this show and will keep you updated as soon as it hits the net! In the meantime we'll just dig a little in the past of this fine song that according to eye witnesses rocked Anaheim last night.
"The Ghost Of Tom Joad" is the title track of Springsteen's album of the same name from 1996. At the time this album was a bit of an odd move in Springsteen's career. He had just recorded a few new tracks with the E-Street band in 1995 for the "Greatest Hits" sessions, so hopes were high for a full blown reunion. Instead the stripped down Tom Joad with only Danny Federici and Gary Tallent of the band joining Springsteen for the sessions. Making it the first project since "Born To Run" in which Roy Bittan had no part. The fiddle parts were done by Soozie Tyrell who would later join the the E-Street Band and Marty Rifkin took the pedal steel parts, later joining Bruce in the Sessions Band.
The song and album were both highly influenced by John Steinbeck's excellent "The Grapes of Wrath " book. Though it is possible that the influence stems more from John Ford's movie adaptation. Part of the lyrics from the title song were lifted directly from that book or screen play with just minor alterations. Springsteen's fascination for Steinbeck's book comes courtesy of Jon Landau according to Marsh in his book on the Boss " Two Hearts". Landau sat Bruce down to watch John Ford's movie when he confessed he had difficulty watching it and explained the movie's themes and social relevance to him. Landau also turned him on to Woody Guthrie through Joe Klein's biography " A Life". Springsteen became hooked to all things Guthrie and Steinbeck. Woody himself had also been highly influenced by the Steinbeck novel and had in fact written "Ballad Of Tom Joad" long before Springsteen adapted the book in song. Guthrie's song was performed by Springsteen a couple of times during the solo acoustic tour that followed the album.
Steinbeck's novel was based on the phenomenon of the Dust Bowl that plagued the United States in the thirties. They were a series of dust storms and droughts that destroyed many farms in the American mid lands right smack in the middle of the great depression. The thirties were a period of enormous social upheaval causing many Americans to migrate to sunny California where jobs seemed to be had. The migrants of the time were called Okies with much disdain and were exploited severely. Steinbeck 's novel gave the Okies a voice and was highly criticized for it when the book was published at first. Californian farmers felt the book was communist propaganda and a pack of lies. Springsteen would later see parallels between the plights of the Okies and the social upheaval of the thirties and the social difficulties of current times. Much like T.C Boyle's book "The Tortilla Curtain" from 1995, Springsteen takes the themes Steinbeck addresses and applies them to the issues surrounding the immigrants from Mexico. Though some may feel the parallel is not entirely honest since Mexico isn't part of the US like the Mid-West was in the times of the Okies, Mexican immigrants do seem to have the same function in today's society as the Okies had in the thirties, they provide cheap labor. However you may feel on this issue though, both Boyle's book and Springsteen's album provide a confrontational look into the lives of illegal immigrants.
The themes addressed in "The Ghost Of Tom Joad" were bound to be attractive to the boys of Rage Against The Machine. As a band they were so extremely left wing that it is rumored that the band exploded in arguments over which member was the best socialist. Most members of the band were not only talking the talk but walking the walk. Especially singer Zach de la Rocha was associated with many left wing protest groups and actions. This high level of commitment to their values produced a few fierce and hard hitting albums that are brilliant in the eyes of some and too much to stomach in the eyes of others. The band recorded the "Ghost Of Tom Joad" three times in their career. The first version was distributed as a now highly collectible free single that came with a VHS release from the band. They then re-recorded the song for their "Renegades" cover album and recorded it once again in a live version that became available as a bonus track on the import version of "Live & Rare" released in 2002. Springsteen himself recently re-recorded the song as a duet with Pete Seeger.
"The Ghost Of Tom Joad" - Rage Against The Machine
"The Ghost Of Tom Joad" - Bruce Springsteen live June 20, 2000 at Madison Square Garden featuring Soozie Tyrell