A Political Companion to John Steinbeck

By Cyrus Ernesto Zirakzadeh; Simon Stow | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 11
Retelling an American Political
Tale: A Comparison of Literary,
Cinematic, and Musical Versions of
The Grapes of Wrath

Cyrus Ernesto Zirakzadeh

AT THE TWENTY-FIFTH anniversary concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, at Madison Square Garden in 2009, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band with guest performer Tom Morello (the lead guitarist of the recently disbanded rock group Rage Against the Machine) performed a loud, electrified version of Springsteen’s song “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Films of the performance record fans cheering wildly. To make sure that the listeners understood the importance of the song’s message, Springsteen prefaced the performance with comments about being part of a long American musical tradition—stretching back to early folk, blues, and rock artists—that recognized the divergence in interests and values of “Main Street” and “Wall Street.” The problems of American society are not new, Springsteen was intimating through his commentary, and recalling how past Americans responded can give twenty-first-century Americans clues about how to see and respond to their current crises.

The performance illustrates the continued use of The Grapes of Wrath to discuss often-ignored aspects of America—in particular, the personal suffering caused by deep downswings in the national economy, the tyranny of corporate capitalism, and the role of the state in protecting private property. Producers and consumers of popular culture in 2009 found meaning and relevance in a piece of literary fiction written decades before they were born. Steinbeck’s tale is a cultural artifact that many Americans, living in different parts of the country and raised in different social circumstances, share.

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