22 years ago today, Bruce Springsteen released a powerful new album: The Ghost of Tom Joad. It’s a spare set of songs about the travails of working Americans — but not just the blue-collar factory workers Springsteen grew up with, the people he’d sung about on albums like The River and Born in the U.S.A. These were people with names like Miguel and Le, immigrants and border patrol officers. It was a switch for Springsteen, but an important one. Today, the album sounds more relevant than ever.
Tom Joad was, and remains, Springsteen’s quietest studio album other than the intimate Nebraska, to which it’s often compared. There’s no question that much of Tom Joad retains the urgent, apocalyptic flavor of that 1982 classic, particularly on songs like the title track and “Youngstown.” Tom Joad also features a number of near-spoken story songs that recall Nebraska tracks like “Highway Patrolman”: “Sinaloa Cowboys,” “The Line,” and “Galveston Bay” all feature full-fledged narratives.
The title track, which is also the opener, sets Springsteen’s agenda: invoking the Okies of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939), the Boss suggests that the itinerant workers of the ’90s shared the anguish of the character Tom Joad. The song quotes Joad’s speech, famously delivered by Henry Fonda in John Ford’s 1940 film adaptation.
The song, and the album, were a stark call for Springsteen’s listeners to look at the underside of the late 20th century, a time when tech-boom wealth was creating a “New Gilded Age.” Income inequality was on the rise: America had just passed the point where the top 1% of earners made more than the bottom 50%, a gap that’s continued to increase. The rising tide of American wealth was not lifting all boats.
Springsteen’s newly explicit multicultural scope sounded a little awkward in 1995, but as time has gone on, the album sounds more like evidence of his empathy and imagination. The Mexican-American brothers of “Sinaloa Cowboys” are poignant counterparts to the brothers in “Highway Patrolman,” with fewer good options. That song is paired with “The Line,” another drama about a man at a border who has to make a tough decision.
Elsewhere, Springsteen turns his eyes to the Rust Belt. The stormy “Youngstown” starts in the eponymous Ohio town, then widens its focus.
From the Monongahela Valley
To the Mesabi Iron Range
To the coal mines of Appalacchia
The story’s always the same
700 tons of metal a day
Now sir you tell me the world’s changed
Once I made you rich enough
Rich enough to forget my name
That song, and “Dry Lightning,” channel the tired rage of the working-class men and women who felt left behind by the dawning Information Age. Last year’s election brought those voices to the forefront of national politics, as they rallied behind an unlikely candidate who promised a return to the glory days of what the “Youngstown” narrator remembered as “smokestacks reachin’ like the arms of God into a beautiful sky of soot and clay.”
In last year’s memoir Born to Run, Springsteen wrote about how his time in the Golden State inspired the songs on Tom Joad.
I’d been through the Central Valley of California many times on the way to visiting my parents. I’d often stop and spend some time in the small farm towns off the interstate. But it still took a good amount of research to get the details of the region correct. I traced the stories out slowly and carefully. I thought hard about who these people were and the choices they were presented with. In California, there was a sense of a new country being formed on the edge of the old. You could feel the America of the next century taking shape in the deserts, fields, towns and cities there first. That vision has come to fruition and all you need to do is take a walk down the main street of my own three-thousand-mile-away Northeastern hometown, Freehold, on any summer evening to see the influx of Hispanic life, the face of the nation changing as it’s changed so many times before, along with the hard greeting most of those who bring that change face upon arrival.
While not all of the album’s songs live up to the passion of their lyrics, Tom Joad is a more musically engaging album than you might remember. The title track and “Youngstown” crackle, while “Straight Time” and “Across the Border” sigh evocatively. A solo acoustic tour following the album release helped plant the seeds for Springsteen’s current Broadway show.
The overwhelming impression of listening to Tom Joad in 2017 is a shock of recognition. In a year when many music fans were turning their ears across the Atlantic, Springsteen channeled voices, right here in America, that needed to be heard. They still do.