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The Ghost Of Tom Joad: Art In Action

This is how art works.

In 1939, John Steinbeck publishes The Grapes Of Wrath. You know all about that.

The novel wins The Pulitzer and sells a trillion copies.

Somewhere along the way, a guy named Bruce Springsteen reads the novel. He likes it–so much so that he decides to write a song inspired by it. In 1995, nearly 60 years after The Grapes Of Wrath was released, Springsteen releases an album that includes the song, “The Ghost Of Tom Joad.”

Two years later, Rage Against The Machine covers Springsteen’s “The Ghost Of Tom Joad.” They release it as a single, and the song became their second “charted” song. Not surprisingly, the Rage version is much heavier than Springsteen’s mellow version.

Ten years later, Nickelback begins covering the Rage version of the song, prompting the ghost of Steinbeck to die a second death, while also prompting the literature and musical gods to bring a mean case of the howling skitters to all members of Nickelback. Most importantly, art died on the day Nickelback covered “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”

I jest. Obviously, I’m not a Nickelback fan. In all honesty, that’s not a bad cover, though. Even though their music sucks, at least they do a good job of covering other people’s music.

I do love the Springsteen version, and even the RATM version to a lesser degree.

Full lyrics below. As you’ll see, they are obviously inspired by the Steinbeck novel.

Isn’t it amazing how an classic piece of literature still inspires people to create more than 60 and 70 years later?

Men walkin’ ‘long the railroad tracks

Goin’ someplace there’s no goin’ back

Highway patrol choppers comin’ up over the ridge

Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge

Shelter line stretchin’ ’round the corner

Welcome to the new world order

Families sleepin’ in their cars in the Southwest

No home no job no peace no rest

The highway is alive tonight

But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes

I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light

Searchin’ for the ghost of Tom Joad

He pulls a prayer book out of his sleeping bag

Preacher lights up a butt and takes a drag

Waitin’ for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last

In a cardboard box ‘neath the underpass

Got a one-way ticket to the promised land

You got a hole in your belly and gun in your hand

Sleeping on a pillow of solid rock

Bathin’ in the city aqueduct

The highway is alive tonight

Where it’s headed everybody knows

I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light

Waitin’ on the ghost of Tom Joad

Now Tom said “Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy

Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries

Where there’s a fight ‘gainst the blood and hatred in the air

Look for me Mom I’ll be there

Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand

Or decent job or a helpin’ hand

Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free

Look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me.”

Well the highway is alive tonight

But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes

I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light

With the ghost of old Tom Joad

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Matt #

    I wonder if Nickelback even knows that song is based on The Grapes of Wrath?


    August 16, 2012
    • I would hope so, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t.


      August 16, 2012
  2. Interesting!


    August 16, 2012
  3. The Springsteen song perfectly fits the book, in both subject and mood. Yet, even though I think folk music is the ‘right’ music for Grapes of Wrath, one could argue that the Rage Against the Machine version better matches the intensity of the anger of the book. Steinbeck really was raging against the machine, wasn’t he?

    What annoys me about the Nickelback cover (other than the fact that it’s Nickelback) is that they present it as a Rage Against the Machine song, as if Bruce Springsteen had nothing to do with it. I feel that a truly good band would do their research and re-interpret the original song in their own way instead of stealing another band’s re-interpretation. The best remakes will inject something original. Rage Against the Machine did that. Nickelback just copied them.

    I’ve finally broken down and started re-reading the book last night. I had just picked up a used hardcover published in 1960-something, only a day or two before you posted about the book the first time. I haven’t read it since high school. Already, I’m seeing different sides to it than I remember seeing in high school. I’ve also found that I’m reading more slowly than usual because I want to really savor the writing.


    August 16, 2012
    • That’s great insight. I think the Rage version and the original Springsteen version fit the tone of the novel.


      August 16, 2012
  4. thebaffledo0queen0ocomposing #

    You missed a step!
    Woody Guthrie sees movie, writes song for (paraphrased) the real stars of the movie, the Okies, who don’t have a dime to go see it, but who can listen to the song for free.


    August 16, 2012
    • I did miss that! Thanks for mentioning it.


      August 17, 2012
  5. Interesting. I can’t believe all these connections! Great thing to point out. There are definately many ties and connections we can all make. It is a good example of how all of our work and truly inspire everyone.


    August 17, 2012
  6. I’m instantly uncool now but I didn’t know this was based on Grapes of wrath. I have never read it. I shall now as I’ve always loved the story of the song.


    September 17, 2012

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