Rage, politics and the ghost of Tom Joad


The Ghost of Tom Joad, as performed by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello joining on lead guitar, also features on Bruce’s new album of covers, rarities and reworkings entitled High Hopes that was released here in Germany a couple of weeks ago. Truth be told, and probably down to the  nature of how it came together, the album is something of a mixed bag, but for me at least it is the re-working of The Ghost of Tom Joad that is, as they say, worth the price of admission alone…

The song, with its nods to Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, the depression-era United States and the travails of contemporary (it was written in the 1990s) worker migration in the south west of the country, was powerful in its simplicity when first recorded for the album of the same name. The version on High Hopes, with Morello taking turns to sing with Springsteen, and featuring his trademark guitar sound, which you can see in the video below, brings a whole new level of anger and, indeed, rage, to the song.

There are plenty out there who find it hard to stomach the likes of Springsteen and Morello – wealthy rock stars both – taking up the cause of the invisible and unheard, the destitute and disenfranchised, but having observed both men bring their political beliefs to their art over the past couple of decades, from that wonderfully uncompromising first Rage Against the Machine album that hit my sixteen year self hard around the ears, to Bruce’s recent offerings on the Wrecking Ball album of 2012, I think it is fair to say that both men appear to be genuine in their commitment, and I admire them all the more for it.

I have taken time out on Under a Grey Sky to write about Bruce Springsteen before, but listening to the new version of The Ghost of Tom Joad I could not help think that there was a wider issue that I wanted to bring to these (virtual) pages. At first glance it might seem that a website about “adventures beyond the front door” would have little to do with politics, let alone the latest release by Mr Springsteen. But I cannot help but think that anyone who is interested in place, in social and cultural history, in (psycho-)geography both physical and human… indeed, anyone who is trying to understand that world beyond the front door, cannot ignore “politics” in all the many and varied meanings of the word.

As I look back through the archive, to articles on walking and access, whether in Berlin in 2013 or on Kinder Scout eighty years earlier, on the post-industrial landscape of Yorkshire or the Saarland, the Llanberis Slate Mines, the Swedish countryside or the Black Mountain over Belfast, and it is clear that to understand these places now is to understand the social, economic and political developments that brought us to this point. As I walk the Berlin Wall Trail for Traces of a Border, I am not only reflecting on the history of the division of Berlin but also contemporary issues of memorialisation, of society in transition, of widening wealth gaps and gentrification. And as I take a small group of interested people through my home neighbourhood of Wedding, as I will do on Saturday morning, there will be much to talk about the social and political developments of the neighbourhood in the present day, as much as we discuss its political past as a focal point of the Social Democratic and Communist movements in Berlin and the Germany beyond the city limits.

A friend of mine once told me about a fellow blogger who, when discussing his Berlin-based website said; “I don’t do politics.” I find it hard to imagine how you write about a city without “doing” politics, but this disengagement seems to fairly common. That is perhaps half the problem… and maybe we could all do with “doing politics” a little bit more. Whatever you might think of Bruce Springsteen or Tom Morello, that is not something that can be levelled at them…

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.”

Words: Paul Scraton
Song Lyrics from The Ghost of Tom Joad by Bruce Springsteen

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