Tom Joad’s Last Words

Saturday was the 106th anniversary of the birth of Woody Guthrie, and (to celebrate) on The Lost Child I played about an hour’s worth of Guthrie’s Library of Congress recordings, his epic 1940 series of sessions with folklorist Alan Lomax. At the end of the show I slipped in, also, a couple of excerpts from “Folk Songs of America,” a radio broadcast from later the same year, in which Guthrie appeared as guest, trading songs with Leadbelly.

One of the songs from that old radio program — and the performance that ended my own show, last Saturday — was “Tom Joad,” in which Guthrie distills The Grapes of Wrath‘s 700 pages into a seven-minute, 16-verse ballad. He borrows the melody from “John Hardy,” the outlaw song, and the tune frames Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl refugee — and, by association, a whole generation of real-life migrants — as another kind of outlaw-hero. (Similarly, Guthrie would rework the popular ballad “Jesse James” into “Jesus Christ,” reading the New Testament, too, as an outlaw tale.)

Near the end of Steinbeck’s novel, the protagonist Joad — inspired by the Christ-like Preacher Casy, and on the run for his life — gives a farewell speech to his “Ma.” His words go like this:

“Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one — an’ then—“

“Then what, Tom?”

“Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be everywhere — wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build–why, I’ll be there. See?”

Henry Fonda made the speech famous. Here’s how it goes in John Ford’s 1940 movie of the book:

And here’s how Woody Guthrie boils all that down into song:

“Ever’body might be just one big soul
Well it looks that a-way to me
Everywhere that you look, in the day or night
That’s where I’m a-gonna be, Ma
That’s where I’m a-gonna be

Wherever little children are hungry and cry
Wherever people ain’t free
Wherever men are fightin’ for their rights
That’s where I’m a-gonna be, Ma
That’s where I’m a-gonna be”

I suppose Woody Guthrie (who was something of an outlaw, himself) is in all those places too, now, today. He’s well worth looking for and listening to, and fighting alongside.

So happy birthday to him.

Here’s “Tom Joad”:

P. S. If you like this sort of thing, you can support the endeavor by doing any of the following: follow this blog by signing up on the righthand side of this page (you’ll get about 2 posts a month in your email inbox); follow @lostchildradio on Instagram; or “like” my book and/or radio show on Facebook. You can purchase my book with Alabama jazzman “Doc” Adams online or at your local bookstore. Heartfelt thanks, sincerely, for any / all of the above.

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