transcript from: http://www.monmouth.com/user_pages/pwalton/springsteen
[Bruce Springsteen was interviewed by Bob Costas about "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and other subjects for the Columbia Radio Hour. The syndicated broadcast aired on various stations in late November of 1995. Most of the interview is transcribed here and on subsequent pages.]
Bruce: I'd made a record, or part of a record, last year, that I didn't finish, and I worked on it quite a bit and I listened to it ... maybe before last Christmas time or something and I said, "Gee, you know, it's not quite right." And I worked with the band on the "Greatest Hits" record. There's something about the band that always has sort of drawn me outside of myself to write more about the world outside, I suppose. I think I wrote "The Ghost of Tom Joad" originally as a rock song for the E Street Band, thinking I might use it as one of the extra songs on the "Greatest Hits" record. And for one reason or another that didn't happen, but it kind of set me in that direction a little bit. And I had this song "Straight Time," which is on this record. And I had that for about a year or so and I liked its basic feeling. And as I was working at that time -- you follow where your voice is, you don't particularly choose where your voice is at any given moment ... at this particular time in my work life ... it seemed like my voice is where this record ended up. It was more of a folk voice. That seemed to be something that was just saying, "Hey, work over here." I didn't sit down and plan to particularly make this type of record or not. Parts of it presented itself to me and then you sort of ... follow it along.
["The Ghost of Tom Joad"]
Bob: Bruce, Tom Joad of course, from John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath," but it's clear that your inspiration for this comes more from the John Ford film, not just for this track, but the whole album has a cinematic feel. I know you're a fan of John Ford.
Bruce: Yeah, that picture I guess I saw in the late '70s and it had a really deep effect on me. I think I'd read some John Steinbeck, probably earlier than that, in high school, and there was something about the film that sort of crystallized the story for me. And it always stayed with me after that ... there was something in that picture that always resonated throughout almost all of my other work. It was just an image that popped out as I was sitting around on the couch messing around with the guitar.
Bob: Do you remember the first time that you watched Henry Fonda give that speech at the end?
Bruce: Oh yeah, I cried ... That was a very powerful speech for me. I think to some degree the things you write are a conversation with yourself ... I think that's probably what that song was to me, it was a conversation I was having with myself. Not about, "Oh, brother, where art thou?" or "Where is this in the world today?" It was just, "Where is it in me?" I think you gotta start with that question. If you can get people to ask that question, then the song's done its job.
Bob: You've often come to the theme of a person in difficult circumstances trying to find some nobility, some dignity in those circumstances, maybe not in a dramatic way that everyone can see, but in some small way that would have a redemptive power for that person. And in these cuts, I find a little bit of that, but also a lot of resignation on the part of these characters that maybe they're just not even gonna find that little bit of dignity.
Bruce: Well, I guess I sort of see there's a little bit of it out there. I don't really start from any political point of view -- no conscious one. I suppose everybody carries their politics innately and emotionally in their psychology in some fashion. But I think that's what's been happening. I think that the American idea of equal opportunity, obviously it hasn't been realized. And I think what's worse, every study that's come out about the division of wealth in society over the past 10 or 15 years has shown that the middle class has been getting smaller and people have been getting farther and farther apart. I think that while it's something that hasn't led to, say, riots, it leads to diminished hopes, diminished expectations, diminished possibilities. And so that feeling ... like I said I don't sit down and start from any particular conscious point of view, but I think that feeling of the way things feel to me right now, that colors the stories and the characters' lives on the record.
Bob: Like we said earlier, "The Ghost of Tom Joad" is based much more on the movie, or draws its inspiration much more from the movie than from the book, and you think about the movie and this whole family making its way out west in this little rickety car, and nothing about their circumstances is nurturing, nothing should give them reason to be optimistic, and they're trying to forge some sense of community among themselves and find something that's real that can help them transcend these circumstances. And that theme shows up in a lot of your work through the years, doesn't it?
Bruce: I guess, see my folks in 1969, I was 19, my folks went west. They went to California to start a new life ... it was my mom, my dad and my little sister, I think they had saved $3000, and I remember I stayed in New Jersey because I'd gotten very involved with the band and I guess that'd become my family at that point in time, and it was also where I could make a living. I went out to California, I tried to make a living and I couldn't get a job. I couldn't get a job where somebody'd pay me to play. And back home I had two or three clubs where I could come up with a hundred, a hundred-twenty-five, or a hundred-fifty bucks a week, which was enough to survive on. I was sleeping with six other guys in an apartment and everybody's chipping in a few bucks for rent. But my folks went in '69, they had three grand, they slept two nights in the car and one night in a motel, and that was what they did. They drove into California, they didn't know anybody ... I had a girlfriend who was one of the first sort of hippies in the area, she was the only person anyone knew who'd ever been to San Francisco (laughs), and she sent 'em to Sausalito, (laughs) which was sort of, I guess, this sort of hipsters' enclave at the time...
Bob: Was she sure to wear a pretty flower in her hair?
Bruce: (laughs) So my folks pull straight from New Jersey into Sausalito, where of course, they realize very quickly that they don't belong there. And my mother claims they pulled into a gas station and asked the attendant, "Hey, where do people like us live?" (laughs) and somebody said, "Oh, you live on the peninsula." That's her story, so they started a whole new life out there, they did well, but they struggled pretty hard. I went out there -- there was a time when I'd never been on an airplane, till I made a record, nobody could afford an airplane ticket. To get to see them about once every year or so, me and a buddy of mine, we'd drive across the country, go three days straight, we'd save -- whatever, a hundred bucks ... and drive straight through. I went to California ... I did some auditioning, but I realized really quickly that I wasn't gonna be able to live out there ... you know, there were just a lot of musicians, and while it was a much bigger music scene, I was a nobody, and I realized very quickly that while someone might let you play, they're not gonna pay you. So I stayed about two months and I realized I was gonna have to be living off my folks and I didn't want to do that, so I went back to New Jersey. And I don't know if that's had something to do with part of what I've written about. Maybe it's some of my own experience and some of just, that's the American story. The American story is transience and the idea of "over the rise," which is less now, I suppose, but I think it's some ingrained part of, not just the American spirit, but human spirit in general. My characters have always been on the move going someplace, searching for something -- whether it's a better life or running from something with the idea that somehow moving will make you better, it'll heal you inside.
Bob: This may not be the exact quote, but you said something like this once: "I was 24 years old, I was sitting at home in New Jersey asking myself the question 'Is love real?' and if people have followed my characters through all the years, they can find a common thread with them and they see that 'Lucky Town' is where those characters wind up." That's what it was at the time you made that statement. Is "The Ghost of Tom Joad" where those characters wind up or where their thoughts wind up now, or is it more a nod of recognition at a path that all of us could conceivably take if we make the wrong choices or if our circumstances aren't so lucky?
Bruce: I guess I don't like to use the idea of "wind up." I guess you don't "wind up" till it's over. (laughs ) There's a lot of different things, questions, I tried to work through in my work over the years. The idea of 'is love real,' yeah, I think it is, but it's hard to find. And it can be hard to find evidence of it. I'd written I think all of this record. And I was in my library one night and pulled a book out called "Journey to Nowhere," which was a book I'd bought years before and I hadn't read. The text is by a fellow named Dale Maharidge and there's some really great photos by a fellow named Michael Williamson, and basically what they did, they went out on the road and they road the trains from, I think, St. Louis to Oregon, and it documented a lot of what had been happening to a group of Americans in the latter half of the '80s -- the people that the trickle-down economy never trickled down to. It's a book that makes very real, puts real faces on what it's like if you slip through those cracks. I was very frightened, I remember I read it all in one night and I closed it -- my God, you never know what tomorrow brings. It strikes some sort of fear: what if you couldn't take care of your family, what if you had to leave them, what if you couldn't be home with your sons and your daughters, what if you couldn't pay for their health care, and couldn't provide them with the health care that they need? What if that was your kids? I know how deadly important my job is to me. What if I didn't have that job? Or what if I couldn't do that job after I did it for 20 years or 25 years?
Bob: or what if the job you had...
Bob: ...didn't have anything to do with anything that really meant something to you?
Bruce: Right, so these are all questions that I don't know, I ask myself a lot I guess, and hey, I've had an enormous amount of luck and fortune and have worked hard, but that other thing, I don't know, it never feels that far away, and I think that it's as far away as the guy next to you. It's not that far.
Bob: If you believe as you said once that people listen to your songs not to find out about you, but to find out about themselves. What do you think they'll come away from this record thinking or thinking about?
Bruce: Basically, I think I tried to sit down and feel... I think your
music always ends up being two things... one, it's probably a photograph of
your own inner landscape, emotional landscape to some degree. And possibly your
character in some fashion -- how you perceive your life, lives around you, the
place you live. And then it's a picture ... I tried to reflect what the country
feels like to me right now. The bottom line. That's the line that people will
always judge ... America will always be judged against that, that's what the
American idea was, some concept of shared burden. I guess what I was trying
to do probably for myself was to put myself back in touch with those ideas,
those values. I have children now. I'm a grown man. Now's not the time to think
about what I want to be like, it's the time for me to be what I want to be like.
So I think I was trying to really get myself back in touch ... with my family,
my children, the man you want to be and what you want the place you live in
to be like ,,. I sorta go for that first and I assume that if it's working for
me, then it'll work for my audience or whoever listens to it ... I think that's
probably where I'm coming from.