Two More Ghosts of Tom Joad
Short reads of "Highway 29" and "Youngstown"
[Abandoned steel mill in Youngstown, OH]
Two more compelling songs on Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” album, read with and against their author…
An austere and terrifying little tale. The narrator meets a woman while he is working at a shoe store. The passion of the relationship is intense but perverse, even evil. In short order, they have robbed a bank and he is seriously wounded. By the end of the song, they have crossed the border in flight into Mexico.
There is no explanation given for their turn toward criminal darkness. The narrator tells us only that its origin is in him, and not in her, but if she is wholly without responsibility, why did it manifest only after the two of them met?
I told myself it was all something in her
But as we drove I knew it was something in me
Something that had been coming for a long, long time
And something that was here with me now
On Highway 29
As in “Straight Time,” no clear answer is given as to what the “something” is or whence it came. Given Springsteen’s politics, he doubtless would go full environmental here: it is the tough experiences and circumstances that lead his characters to go terribly astray.
In this song, however, there is even less evidence to support that narrative than in the other. The narrator has no background and no inner life. In an ambiguous last verse, he is “running” and then “flying,” perhaps after a fatal automobile accident.
The road was filled with broken glass and gasoline
She wasn't saying nothing, it was just a dream
The wind come silent through the windshield
All I could see was snow, sky and pines
I closed my eyes and I was running
I was running then I was flying
The obvious model for this kind of narrative is the Bonnie and Clyde myth, which has been done and redone in popular music. My favorite version of it was in French translation, with Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot playing the roles, the tiny chain-smoking Gainsbourg not entirely convincingly, but the incomparable Bardot in her consistently breathtaking manner.
It is an odd moral thing that our culture has done with the story of Bonnie and Clyde. I have used the 1967 Arthur Penn film in class, to show students how expertly Hollywood turns sordid and morally empty criminal violence into righteous pursuit of justice by two people so much more beautiful than the rest of us that it simply must be a tragedy when they perish. (Try to think of a film couple as doubly gorgeous as the young Warren Beatty and the young Fate Dunaway…I’ll wait right here while you do that).
It takes great willpower just to remember, seeing those two perfect faces, that the historical characters they are interpreting were soulless mass murderers, ruthless killers of at least nine police officers and four civilians. We’ve even twisted the already thoroughly warped narrative to fit other political agendas, e.g., making Bonnie and Clyde into two heroic feminist women fighting patriarchy by shooting disgusting sexist male pigs and then flying off with a kiss into glorious oblivion in Thelma and Louise.
Springsteen does much subtler work on the narrative here. You can get “the system” as the “something,” but the interpretive frame includes options more sinister as well.
A classic Springsteen narrative of long-suffering working class laborers and their merciless exploitation by the capitalist system that leaves them abject after it has wrung everything it can from them. I freely admit it takes no effort whatever for me, child of the underclass that I am, to climb up on the beautifully indignant wave of that chorus and dig it enthusiastically all the way to its revolutionary roots.
Well, my daddy come on the Ohio works
When he come home from World War Two
Now the yard's just scrap and rubble
He said "Them big boys did what Hitler couldn't do"
These mills they built the tanks and bombs
That won this country's wars
We sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam
Now we're wondering what they were dying for
Yet Springsteen builds more complexity into this than you will find in your typical college course in 20th century American history, which can be counted on to be fully monolingual. Yes, there is exploitation in the mills, and it needs to be called out. But there is also sustenance and provision there:
Taconite coke and limestone
Fed my children and made my pay
The smokestacks reaching like the arms of God
Into a beautiful sky of soot and clay
I wrote a review recently of an academic historian’s book on working class labor in Pittsburgh. The book sang repeatedly and without alteration the one tune we have come to expect from such authors. Oppression, oppression, oppression! Nowhere did it bring itself to admit the complexity that Springsteen builds in. And neither the academic historian nor the great songwriter from New Jersey mentions another fact I discuss in the review: uncompromising and unrealistic union radicalism certainly contributed to the collapse of the labor market that, however imperfectly, had provided well for Pittsburgh’s steel workers.
None of this complexity takes anything away from the emotional power of the song. On the contrary. Suffering when there is no clear answer as to how to alleviate it is arguably more profoundly, more awfully felt than that which has a simple solution (get the capitalists!).
I often tell students that if they take one thing home to keep from my classes in the social sciences, in which I try to give them the best theory and the best research on tough sociological questions, it should be this: It’s always more complicated than you think it is. Always.
They typically hate this message. We all want clarity and simplicity. It can be found in some spheres of life, I believe. But not here.