The Moral Tales of _The Ghost of Tom Joad_
First of a short series, maybe
I have never been greatly interested in the music of Bruce Springsteen, although I admit I do not know it well, and perhaps I should know it better.
When “Glory Days” was on the radio constantly in the summer of 1985, I was a progressive rock/hardcore metal kid who pretended to disdain all popular music, which meant anything that was ever played on FM radio, so I couldn’t admit I liked the song. But I got busted once by a co-worker singing along at the top of my lungs in the store room at the convenience store where I worked. (I did however find it suspicious that a song soaked in the rhetoric of working class America could speak of a baseball pitcher throwing “speedballs” when even casual baseball fans know there’s no such thing in any pitcher’s arsenal. Fastballs, Bruce, they’re called fastballs—it’s painfully obvious in the video when you look at his awkward delivery from the mound that he’s not logged a lot of innings in his life).
But in the mid-‘90s, Springsteen released The Ghost of Tom Joad. It was a significant departure from his previous records stylistically. No big rock ‘n’ roll ambience; just melancholy acoustic guitars, plaintive harmonica, and mumbled lyrics about brokenness and suffering. Just the kind of thing likely to get my attention.
A once close friend who decided at some point in the past to break off our relationship over things I didn’t and still don’t fully understand made me a cassette dub of the album/tape/CD/whatever we’re calling these things today. (‘Album’ always springs first to mind for me because I still own so many of them and I grew up with that technology). He was a big Springsteen fan. I inevitably think of him and the failure of our friendship, which was so meaningful for me in that time, when I hear this collection of songs.
The entire album is remarkable. One song after another about the trials and tribulations of common folk, restless young people struggling with adjustment to the frequently grim realities they face and steel mill workers abused and forgotten by the industries that got rich from their labor and prison parolees trying with limited success to make family life work and undocumented immigrants seeking new opportunities and ending in tragedy and train-riding hoboes surviving and not surviving life on the rails.
My former friend and I spoke a good deal about how real these characters were in Springsteen’s depiction. He and I shared similar social origins solidly among the American underclass, so I think it fair to say we had some ground for judgment of verisimilitude in this realm.
The most remarkable thing to me about Springsteen’s portraits is that, for the most part (the title track, which takes up Steinbeck’s Tom Joad character and his left populist crusade against injustice, is the major exception), they float around somewhere on the borders of easy ideological characterizations.
In music as in all art, I find depictions of suffering that are framed within utopian narratives of easy escape from the suffering through revolution or other such world-changing social upheavals artistically unmoving, and sometimes just plain tedious, precisely because they simplify complex things intolerably. The historical record, first of all, is painfully clear on this point: revolutions do not eliminate suffering. They sometimes shift its burden from one location to another; often, they do not even accomplish that. With some frequency, they increase it, especially in the short run. The world does not permit easy resolutions of such long-lived problems.
Art loves the depiction and the description of suffering precisely because it is such a deep, complex thing, and realist accounts of it in art always take up the difficult task of approximating that complexity rather than shortcutting it with easy fixes.
What follows is the first of a few commentaries on the songs on this album that in my view provide moving artistic commentaries on suffering.
In purely musical terms, this is one of the most plaintive songs in a plaintive collection.
It tells the story of a convicted felon after his release from prison. He finds work in a rendering plant, a kind of work involving using animal parts from slaughterhouses to produce a range of products. Mike Rowe once described rendering work on his old Dirty Jobs television program as “a blood bath” with a “smell [that is] indescribable” and “sights [that] are something out of Kafka.” That Springsteen chooses this labor for the song’s protagonist is a canny and deeply symbolically meaningful move, though it is a point easily missed by any listener who has never heard of rendering plants or who is unable to decipher the term in Springsteen’s mumbling delivery.
The ex-con marries and his wife gives him children. He tries to “walk the clean and narrow,” working and endeavoring to be a father and a husband. He clearly has some motivation to “stay out and stay alive.”
But he is doomed by something undefined.
There are other criminals in his family, and his uncle, who sells stolen cars, encourages him to join him in that trade. His wife understands the part of him that is still drawn to the criminal world, and she rightly fears it and “watch[es him] out of the corner of her eye.” He admits he “can feel the itch.”
The chorus hints at the destination toward which the song moves: “I got a cold mind to go tripping across that thin line, sick of doing straight time.” By the last verse, he’s preparing a shotgun for criminal activity by sawing off the barrel, and we know he’s lost.
Wrenchingly depressing, and hauntingly beautiful in the description of that sadness.
And the delicacy of Springsteen’s balancing act on the question of “Why does he return to crime?” is something of real artistic accomplishment.
Those who would like to believe criminals are all made by unfortunate environmental circumstances, that, as the song alludes, we do not give ex-prisoners a fair shake and never allow them to “get any more than half free,” can find evidence to support their view here.
But those who, while agreeing that those facts matter in explaining people like the protagonist, also believe that the hearts of men generally make considerable space for dreadful evil and some subset of our species, for reasons not reducible to the effects of the social world, barely resist, or do not resist at all but rather enthusiastically embrace the evil, can see their view reflected here too.
For the protagonist is apparently not overly troubled by his drift back. He’s “sick” of the life of respectability and familial responsibility that most of us take as our charge and our joy. After he readies his shotgun for the crimes to come, untroubled and morally emptied out, he “lay[s his] head down on the pillow and go[es] drifting off into foreign lands.”
I find myself feeling some compassion for him, but also much judgment and even a little contempt. Most of my compassion is reserved for Mary, his wife, and the “little babies” he will leave her when, inevitably, the law comes to visit him again after his new transgressions and he returns to the fallen life he desires.