What Bruce Springsteen’s late 1995 folk masterpiece means in the modern day
- The Ghost of Tom Joad at 25 (Art: Ron Hart)
There are multiple ways to sort Bruce Springsteen albums: by decades, by the E Street Band presence, by Righteous Brothers contributions.
However, the cleanest line to draw is the one between beaten-down and hopeful and beaten-down and hopeless. He doesn’t discriminate with who gets his sympathies. Angsty New Jersey youths, desperate to get out of their go-nowhere towns and people reeling from the shock of 9/11, are taken equally seriously, as is their faith in something, somehow working out.
Sometimes, though, Springsteen knows it’s a fool’s errand to so much as humor hope. After Born to Run made him a star and idol to dreamers looking to pack up and head out, Springsteen could’ve just regurgitated those ideals, packaging them as lukewarm audio snake oil, as he saw his net worth balloon. Instead, he evolved them and his sound, not-so-subtly suggesting that, try as you might to overcome them, some things will just keep you down. The growth can even be seen on the subsequent album covers. While Born to Run had him wearing a wry smile as he laid his arm over the late Clarence Clemons’ shoulder, Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River showed Springsteen in different states of vacant stares. Like a painting, the eyes follow you. The albums, great in their own right, are also like Springsteen testing his fans, seeing how far into bleakness they’ll follow him.
AUDIO: Bruce Springsteen Alone in Colts Neck–The Complete Nebraska Recordings
The apex of that was Nebraska, the requisite “cool kids” choice for best Springsteen album, whose cover didn’t feature Springsteen at all, but rather, a black-and-white photo of a barren midwest landscape, shot from the dashboard of a car that’s likely broken down, awaiting repossession, or both. Springsteen sings and strums into a 4-track recorder about killers, impoverished families, and gangland shootings. The only notion that there was a reason to believe was because that was the title and topic of the closing track, which begins with someone discovering a dead dog, lying in a ditch.
The Ghost of Tom Joad came 13 years after Nebraska, and it’s Springsteen’s furthest venture into despair to date. It also ends with a relatively jauntier number, but “Reason to Believe’ is “Twist and Shout” compared to the resigned melancholy of “My Best Was Never Good Enough.” While Nebraska’s moodiness was occasionally livened up by some pulpiness and suspense, Tom Joad is somehow more somber. If there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s flickering and underpaid workers probably had their health ruined putting it together.
The songs here are more short stories, sung softly, often with little more accompanying them than a simple picked guitar melody and some intrusive keyboard swells. Springsteen, who was living in Beverly Hills at the time, and who would eventually move back to his home turf of New Jersey with his family, wasn’t thinking about the coasts. He was focused on the borders, the ones between countries, between class strata, and between cultures. “Galveston Bay” is focused on Vietnam War veterans, one returning to and another immigrating to the United States, both working as fishermen in southeast Texas, when the Ku Klux Klan was re-emerging. Multiple notions of the American Dream are shattered, from the idea of a melting pot where non-white people are welcomed and treated fairly, to the idea of people still in their teens being sent overseas with guns and minimal training having anything to do with protecting freedom.
VIDEO: Bruce Springsteen performs “Ghost of Tom Joad” with Tom Morello
While undoubtedly a political album, with a title track that’s been covered by Rage Against the Machine and which sardonically references the decades-long concept of the “new world order” as people struggle to have even their most basic needs met, Tom Joad isn’t a rallying cry for action. The exploited workers of “Youngstown” and the homeless and addicted immigrants of “Balboa Park” aren’t going to be saved by letters to Congress. Springsteen’s faith in institutions is as shaky as Wire creator David Simon’s.
Like Simon, Springsteen often shifts perspectives. The people trying to make it across the border (including on a song literally called “Across the Border”) are highlighted, but so are the border patrol guards, but with less success. “The Line” aspires to be a thrilling tale of a man wrestling with his professional duties and his heart. Unfortunately, Springsteen seems too worried about making his protagonist likable (including giving him a colleague from Mexico), and the transition from character study of a widowed veteran to cross-cultural romantic caper and beyond is clunky. Much better is the story of an ex-con who can’t handle the prison of the outside world on “Straight Time” or just the general parade of misfortunes on “The New Timer.” Tom Joad’s value as an album depends largely on Springsteen’s storytelling abilities. He gives enough detail and plot turns to keep you interested, provided you’ve been paying attention.
Springsteen’s perspective shifts including switching from a first to third-person point of view. He’s usually an omniscient narrator for songs about immigrants, perhaps wisely realizing that, if he’s to share their stories, he needs to do so from a more detached place. “Across the Border” breaks that theory, however. It’s also the most hopeful the album gets, but the overlying gloom can’t be missed. Springsteen’s narrator is so convinced he’s seen the worst of life, not realizing the worst may be yet to come.
At the time of its release, The Ghost of Tom Joad was greeted with polite but not laudatory reception and fairly disappointing sales, debuting right outside of the Billboard top 10, after an eight-album streak of at least top-five placement. Reviewing the record for Entertainment Weekly, David Browne noted Springsteen’s obvious reverence for Woody Guthrie, but lamented the lack of willingness to take folk music to new places, as he did with the Oscar-winning “Streets of Philadelphia.” Browne also critiqued the lack of musicality to the album: “Even Guthrie never forgot the importance of writing tunes people can sing. Some of Springsteen’s melodies are so listless that you wonder why he didn’t make a spoken-word record.”
Certainly, there are flaws to Tom Joad. Save for “Youngstown” and its gorgeous violin accenting, few songs have memorable musical elements. The keyboard chords feel more distracting than enriching. Despite starting with bleating harmonica and Springsteen’s adeptness with the instrument, it has a fairly minimal presence. But Springsteen sticking to the classic folk playbook is a strength, not a weakness, even if he can’t always reach the heights of Guthrie. He was using old methods to tell unfortunately old stories. The Great Depression and Dust Bowl may have been accepted as over long before the mid-90s, but the conditions that allow poverty to exist and persist weren’t gone.
A millionaire rockstar singing about and as people without so much as a safe place to spend a night has to be careful about not turning these stories into unrelenting trauma porn. Springsteen’s sincerity and compassion for his characters are always clear, something of an emotional salve for wounds that refuse to heal.
On the classic Darkness on the Edge of Town opener “Badlands,” he delivered one of his finest maxims, “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” As The Ghost of Tom Joad shows, sometimes, that’s all you have.