When I wrote about the Henry Fonda starring, John Ford directed The Grapes of Wrath, I said it was surprising, “how relevant it is three quarters of a century later. We’re still only a few years out from the last Global Financial Crisis and the issue of cheap labour and migrant workers is getting plenty of attention as the U.S ramps up to their next election. Is that a sign of how timeless John Steinbeck’s story was, or of how little has changed in the years since?” Well, it turns out that the world according to Bruce Springsteen was going through something similar 20 years ago as well, inspiring the Boss to invoke Wrath’s central character for the lead off, title track, of The Ghost of Tom Joad.
An acoustic guitar, a mouth organ and Springsteen’s weary voice do more on this song to ask questions about the state of the world than any rabble rousing, anger spewing protest song. And I have nothing against rabble rousing, anger spewing protest songs, I just appreciated Springsteen’s more subtle approach to getting his message across. The Great Depression had John Steinback asking the tough questions about how to fix America through his Tom Joad Character. I guess in 1995, Springsteen decided it was his turn.
The gentle, finger picked guitar continues with Highway 29 as he sings about a small, desert town on the side of the highway lost in time, surrounded by an America that has moved on, and maybe not always in the right direction. But it’s no sugar coated nostalgia. There’s a heartbreak and tragic sound to the vocal delivery that makes it sound like this version of the song’s narrator is best left in the past.
The rest of the E Street Band is invited to the party for Youngstown. And while the sound might be a little more full, it’s still all about restraint and vintage, dust bowl, folk story telling. That folk element only grows on Sinaloa Cowboys as Springsteen’s voice takes on a Bob Dylan-esque nasal drawl. Which should make me hate this song, because I’m in no way a Dylan fan. But Springsteen makes it work.
On a record full of stripped restraint, The New Timer finds even more room for sparseness in a less is more kind of way that makes it possibly the strongest, most impactful song on The Ghost of Tom Joad. It’s a sound that works just as well two songs later with Galveston Bay.
I always knew Brice Springsteen was capable of quiet, tender, more subtle music. But I guess I’d always heard it amongst his crowd pleasing rockers. Because what really surprised me about The Ghost of Tom Joad is how well he can maintain this simplicity of an entire record, without it ever becoming boring it redundant. Staying vibrant and commanding for 12 songs over 50 minutes can’t be easy. But The Ghost of Tom Joad never lost my full attention for a single second.