“I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this” ~ Steinbeck, as he embarked upon writing The Grapes of Wrath.
Bruce Springsteen first became aware of Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath after watching John Ford’s classic movie adaption. The young songwriter was deeply immersed in recording Darkness on the Edge of Town at the time and had begun seeking inspiration by watching old noir movies.
The themes explored in Grapes of Wrath would weave themselves into Springsteen’s consciousness to emerge over and over in his music in the years to come. And no song owes more to that inspiration than the Guthrie-esque The Ghost of Tom Joad. The title track to Springsteen’s 1995 album, this song is imbued with the spirit of Steinbeck’s gritty depression-era novel. Tom Joad, the antihero of the novel is invoked as social conscience/witness in the song’s chorus.
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light. Waitin’ on the ghost of Tom Joad.
In its original incarnation, the song is delivered in a barely whispered, almost defeated tone, the mostly acoustic arrangement barely lifting its message above a murmur. Only Springsteen’s harmonica wail breaks out above the resigned restraint of the music.
Two years later the song was again given life when the group Rage Against the Machine covered it in a radically different thrash-rap style. This version was virtually unrecognisable from the original, but it delivered the themes of the song to a much younger audience who would have been largely unaware of Springsteen’s body of work.
The song now having received two very different treatments, this is where one might logically expect the story to end. However, there was to be one more twist in the tale of Tom Joad.
In 2008, during Springsteen’s Magic tour, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine joined the E Street Band onstage for a blistering rendition of the song which blended the two previous disparate versions into an unexpectedly new manifestation.
Gone was the sense of defeat which suffused the Springsteen original, gone was the howling rage that Morello’s band had brought to it. Now it was a song of defiance delivered with a knowing self-assurance. Now, more than ever it resembled Joad’s speech at the end of Ford’s movie.
Springsteen was so happy with this new version that he invited Morello back to play it several more times and, eventually asked the talented guitarist to accompany the E Street Band on the Australian leg of their 2013 Wrecking Ball tour (as a replacement for E Street stalwart Van Zandt, who could not appear due to TV commitments).
This version of the song was re-recorded by Springsteen during that Australian leg, with Morello on guitar and vocals, and can be found on 2014’s High Hopes album.