In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: For Horrors Week, we’re once again talking about songs with the word “ghost” in the title.
Bruce Springsteen’s most popular songs give an agitated voice to the young and the restless, but the themes of many of his songs—especially as he got older—focus on the poor and the destitute. The character of Tom Joad hails from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath, where he leads his bankrupt family out of Dust Bowl Oklahoma to California, leaving one desperate situation for another. Springsteen’s harmonica has never been more appropriate than in “The Ghost Of Tom Joad,” an ode to Steinbeck’s character and to all the people in the U.S. who live a broken American dream.
While most of the song alludes directly to Steinbeck’s story, Springsteen includes a jab at George H. W. Bush’s “new world order” vision, bringing Tom Joad out of the Great Depression to highlight how bad modern times are for poor folk. “Welcome to the new world order / Families sleeping in their cars in the Southwest / No home no job no peace no rest” is an indictment of the ’90s policies that focused on increased U.S. military imperialism overseas, channeling money into America’s ever-growing war machine while ignoring the impoverished people suffering “in a cardboard box beneath the underpass.”
While The Ghost Of Tom Joad often gets lost in Springsteen’s repertoire—Nebraska satisfies the desire for sad, acoustic Springsteen so well—the message in the title track remains as relevant today as it did when Springsteen wrote it, connecting a thread all the way back to the Great Depression and the continued suffering working-class people experience thanks to the whims of governments and capitalism. “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” is also a favorite of Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello, who has joined The Boss onstage for an electric-guitar-heavy version.