Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Giving Thanks for Tom Joad

I always pull "The Ghost of Tom Joad" out around this time of year, since it was released just before Thanksgiving in 1995.  It's one of my favorite albums by Bruce, and even though I know this is a decidedly minority opinion, I enjoy it more than "Nebraska," its closest kin in the Springsteen canon.  It's almost as bleak as the earlier album, but more tuneful.  But the music is subtle, and sneaks up on you - you have to give it time to sink in.

Bruce was living in my home state at the time, and I almost wish that he'd called the album "California" - because several of its songs are rooted in things that were happening here at the time.  It seems hard to believe now, but in 1995 you could have called California a red state and not be laughed out of the room.  The Republican wave that swept the country in 1994 had crested in California, leading to what had seemed unthinkable just a year before - the GOP captured the State Assembly, and it was only because Willie Brown was a lot smarter than his counterparts that the Dems were able to hold onto the house - he turned one GOP member, resulting in a 40-40 deadlock that gave new meaning to the term "political gridlock."

For some reason, Governor Pete Wilson - a decent enough man, and seemingly on the moderate side - somehow interpreted this as a mandate to run for President, and a mandate to base his campaign on on effort to dehumanize and expel "illegal immigrants" from the state.  It was a mean-spirited, out of character move, and it came as no big surprise that it crashed and burned in no short order.  And, proving the law of political unintended consequences, it pushed the state's burgeoning Latino population straight into the arms of the Democratic party, where it has remained ever since.

This, plus the severe economic downturn of the moment (not just in California, but in Texas and all over the country), served as the context for "Tom Joad," and songs like "The Ghost of Tom Joad," "Highway 29," "Sinaloa Cowboys," "The Line," "Balboa Park," "The New Timer," and most of all "Across the Border," with these heart-rending and beautiful lines:

Tonight we'll sing the songs
I'll dream of you my corazon
And tomorrow my heart will be strong

And may the saints' blessing and grace
Carry me safely into your arms
There across the border

For what are we
Without hope in our hearts
That someday we'll drink from God's blessed waters

And eat the fruit from the vine
I know love and fortune will be mine
Somewhere across the border

"The Ghost of Tom Joad" - always a reason to be thankful.

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