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How a Bruce Springsteen tale of poverty and despair was given vibrant new life by Rage Against The Machine

Rage Against The Machine standing in front of a US flag
(Image credit: Niels Van Iperen/Getty Images)

It was November 1995, and at first glance The Ghost Of Tom Joad, Bruce Springsteen’s eleventh album, was dead on arrival (it was his first release for two decades to not make the US Top 5). Yet the record hadn’t passed entirely without ripples. 

“I was a huge fan,” Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello told Classic Rock in 2014. “It was my favourite record for a long time. I think I gave the CD to Zack [De La Rocha, RATM singer] for Christmas that year.” 

You could see why the album – and particularly its title song – might light a fire in the LA agitators. Named after the protagonist from John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes Of Wrath, and inspired by folk great Woody Guthrie’s The Ballad Of Tom Joad from the same period, Springsteen had transplanted those visions of hardship into the Clinton era, where fortune had not found everyone. 

‘Families sleeping in their cars in the South-West’, he sang. ‘No home, no job, no peace, no rest…’ As Springsteen revealed in his Songs lyrics book, The Ghost Of Tom Joad had shape-shifted as it moved along the timeline (“It started out as a rock song. But it didn’t feel right, so I set it aside”). He added that later, the song announced the treatment it needed – “just myself and my guitar” – and led the way for the acoustic-led parent album.

Perhaps that downbeat approach was part of the song’s failure to connect. Springsteen’s fingerpicked take was hushed and haunted, set on synth beds and more wistful than white-hot-angry. But Morello looked past the presentation. 

“We were about to set off with U2 on the PopMart tour and we didn’t have any new material. I suggested that we do a Rage-ified cover of The Ghost Of Tom Joad. The lyrics were certainly not out of context for Rage Against The Machine. And I brought a bulldozer riff or two to it that worked very well.” 

While Springsteen’s original had smouldered but not quite ignited, Rage dropped a match on the tinderbox, with a stalking groove reminiscent of their early classic Bombtrack, and De La Rocha selling the final verse as a threat: ‘Whenever you see a cop beating a guy, whenever a hungry newborn baby cries/Wherever there’s a fight against the blood and the hatred in the air/Look for me, ma, I’ll be there…’

Buoyed by the response to the song during that U2 tour, RATM released it as a single in 1997. And in a serendipitous instance of art coming full circle, from 2008 Morello regularly joined the Springsteen band to perform Tom Joad live, as the song grew ever-heavier.

With Morello ultimately appearing on a grungy new take for Springsteen’s 2014 album High Hopes, the question of who is covering whom is open to debate. But one thing is undeniable: without Rage’s input, The Ghost Of Tom Joad would never have enjoyed its afterlife. As Morello says: “Tom Joad was the one I felt I really had to hit the nail on the head with.”

Henry Yates
Henry Yates

Henry Yates has been a freelance journalist since 2002 and written about music for titles including The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Classic Rock, Guitarist, Total Guitar and Metal Hammer. He is the author of Walter Trout's official biography, Rescued From Reality, a music pundit on Times Radio and BBC TV, and an interviewer who has spoken to Brian May, Jimmy Page, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie Wood, Dave Grohl, Marilyn Manson, Kiefer Sutherland and many more.