#31: Tom Joad


Woody Guthrie:
”The Ballad of Tom Joad” (side A)
”The Ballad of Tom Joad” (side B) (1940)

Available on the magnificent compact disc, Woody Guthrie: “The Dust Bowl Ballads”

* * * * *

I’ve heard that a number of people who speak French make a distinction between chanson or songs and musique, in that one might say that they love chanson whereas, in English, we always say that we love music. Naturally, the complexity found in contemporary songs exceeds that found in a lot of older music and certain non-lyric based music has a simplicity and lyricism that many songs don’t; however, I think making this making this distinction is quite telling and – for the record – I’d like to state that I love songs, music, and all good sounds/noises that fall between or outside the two.

I have to admit that I almost always love a great song. Since I started posting mp3 blogs in June I’ve been trying to find ways to slip in some great songs and, in the very least, keep them somewhat loosely related to the other more abstract contemporary art music selections that I usually post. At this point, after commenting above on a distinction some make between song and music, I think I’m ready to give up trying to find any rational argument for posting songs and, from now on, just post whatever I want to.

Moving on…

I consistently think that Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” is the saddest book I’ve read. Probably because of this, over the years “The Grapes of Wrath” has also been one of the more significant novels I’ve read in terms of how it has influenced my beliefs and thoughts on a number of contemporary ethical, moral, and political issues.

I’ve got a give a hand to Woody Guthrie because he shore knew how to distill the essence of this 600 some page book in one seven minute song – “The Ballad of Tom Joad.” What the song may lack in the detail and imagery that Steinbeck provides, it shore makes up for it in its succinct directness of message.

I, myself, won’t write anymore about this song and, instead, am including the following preface Woody Guthrie wrote to it in my personal favorite songbook, “Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People” (which, by the way, contains includes extensive notes on each song by Woody himself and a forward by John Steinbeck).

The story of Tom Joad is one that a lot of boys went through. From the Oklahoma penitentiary – to his home in the dust bowl, and then they had to get away to California – had to pack up their old car and pull out — and his mother and his dad, and his sisters and brothers found out about the thugs and the firebugs and the guards and the deputies that guard the fields that the rich man says “are mine” – “You keep off.”

I wonder about them guys, and I wonder what sort of songs they sing when they ain’t a black jacking somebody or beating you over the head with a pick handle. This book ain’t got no songs in it that was wrote by deputy sheriffs. It ain’t got no songs in it that was wrote by company guards, nor cops, nor snitches, nor guys that set fire to the little shacks of the poor folks along the river bottoms. It’s just got some songs wrote by some people. Real people. But, a guard or a deputy can always change over on the real people’s side.

A long son-of-a-gun. Take a deep breath and sail into it.

-Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, or just plain old Woody

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