Issue 195 of SOCIALIST REVIEW
Published March 1996
Copyright © Socialist Review
Songs of the new Oakies
The Ghost of Tim Joad
by Bruce Springsteen
During his last US concert tour, Bruce Springsteen--who took his first steps toward superstardom by earning a reputation for performing sweat drenched marathon concerts--not only discouraged the audience from dancing in the aisles but asked them to keep quiet.
'A lot of these songs were written with a lot of silence, and they need silence to work,' Springsteen told a crowd in Los Angeles. 'So if you like singing and clapping along, please don't.'
Springsteen's sombre mood was in keeping with his new album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, a mostly acoustic record that bears witness to the misery and desperation of America's have-nots. Springsteen has travelled down this road before but not in a long time--and never with such a sharp understanding of who loses out in US society and what the losers have in common.
The Tom Joad of the album's title is the main character in John Steinbeck's famous novel of the 1930s Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath, about a family driven from their farm in Oklahoma and forced to live in poverty in the migrant labour camps of California.
Now, 56 years later Springsteen tells the story of a new generation of 'Oakies' who face the same exploitation and discrimination:
'Shelter line stretching around the corner,
After the title track Springsteen starts out in familiar territory with a pair of songs about characters who, stripped of their hopes, get caught on the wrong side of the law--and the magnificent 'Youngstown', a bitter tale of the collapse of a steel town:
Welcome to the new world order.
Families sleepin' in their cars in the Southwest.
No home, no job, no peace, no rest.'
'These mills, they built the tanks and bombs
But the heart of this album is the next trio of songs about America's new 'Oakies' in the most literal sense--illegal immigrants from Latin America struggling to survive in the same California fields that Tom Joad and his family worked.
That won this country's wars.
We sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam,
Now we're wondering what they were dyin' for.'
In 'Sinaloa Cowboys' two undocumented workers from Mexico learn the truth of their father's warning--'Everything the North gives, it exacts a price in return'--when they end up as assembly line workers for drug dealers in the deadly process of mixing methamphetamine.
'Balboa Park' tells the story of another illegal who scrapes by as a drug courier and male prostitute. Run down by a car during an Immigration and Naturalisation Service raid, he dies in his 'home' beneath a highway underpass.
In between these songs is 'The Line', the story of a US soldier turned border patrol officer who learns that 'hunger is a powerful thing' and lets a Mexican woman and her family cross the border to an uncertain future searching for work in California's central valley.
The Ghost of Tom Joad is a grim album--Springsteen refuses to sugarcoat any aspect of the nightmares he describes. The moments when his characters overcome the forces that oppress and divide them are few and on a tiny scale--as when the border patrol officer looks the other way in 'The Line' or in 'Galveston Bay' when a native born worker, spurred on by Ku Klux Klan organising, sets out to kill a rival immigrant shrimp fisherman but turns away at the last moment.
Still, two hopeful themes echo through the album. One is Springsteen's insistent reference to the common experiences of the characters in his songs, whether they are native born or immigrants, Latino or white. This recognition of workers' shared interests, regardless of race or nationality, is especially welcome amid the current tide of immigrant bashing by US politicians, Republican and Democrat alike, who want to pit workers against one another.
The other image that haunts this album is the ghost of Tom Joad. On the title track Springsteen sets to music the famous scene from the Steinbeck novel in which Tom, radicalised by his experience in the migrant camps, says farewell to his mother and sets out to fight for a better world:
'Wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand
It is this commitment to the struggle for change that Springsteen's characters are 'waitin' on'--as are all of America's have-nots.
Or a decent job or a helpin' hand,
Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free,
Look in their eyes, Mom, I'll be there.'
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