“tom joad” – country joe mcdonald (1969)


Recently, I was catching up with a friend of mine who moved from Chicago last year.  Every couple of months or so, we FaceTime and just talk about what’s been going in our lives, families, and anything else that comes to mind.  I’m recommended new podcasts or television shows to binge and I really enjoy these talks

The news and current events come up in our conversations a lot.  Since the election last year, that’s really the only thing people talk about.  And rightfully so.  The last two years have been a strange time for the American politics and the citizens of this country.  News coverage leading up to the election in 2016 covered some of the strangest topics ever covered such as a dick measuring contest during one of the Republican primary debates.

Unfortunately, the chaos hasn’t stopped.  As soon as the current administration took control of the office, the sequence of events that has since followed is so fantastic that life right now seems like it was pulled from the plot of a movie.  There is so much happening right now that it is hard to keep up let alone take the time to discern the information overflow from news media outlets.

Whether it is the enforcement of a travel ban, the repeal of a healthcare law, the use of the largest non-nuclear weapon, or an unprecedented firing, the American people have a lot to be mad about.  In the last six months, millions of people have collectively taken to the streets protesting their anger against an administration built on a foundation of hatred and fear.  Watching these protests, and having been in some myself, I find myself bouncing between inspiration and disgust.  I see the people in the streets and I have hope for what people can accomplish together when united against a threat, but I am also dismayed by the institutional powerlessness felt when standing up the man.  Riding that spectrum takes a lot of work and patience, but people stick with it for no other reason than they should.

During my latest talk with my friend, we talked about our involvement in resistance movements against the current administration.  While there are people out there much more involved and devoted, we try to do the best we can.  Though I have always been a politically-minded person, I wasn’t always a politically active person.  However, surrounding the issues inherent in the 2016 election, I’ve become more active and involved than I have ever been.  Marching in the streets, reading reports, engaging in dialogue.  These are the things I had done before, but have since amped up in recent months.  We are in the midst of a perilous time right now and it is likely to get worse than it gets better.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a voracious reader. I have recently been engaged with books more focused on our current political state.  One of the latest books I read was The Plot to Hack America: How Putin’s Cyberspies and WikiLeaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election written by counterintelligence expert Malcolm Nance.  Published prior to the election in October, Nance lays down evidence and his analysis on how the Russian government was applying advanced tools and resources to direct the outcome of the 2016 election.  Now that Donald J. Trump has become president, these allegations have come to light in the form of a full-fledged investigation into his administration’s ties with Russia and any possible collusion.

While I read books that are more explicitly focused on a modern and developing issue, I do take time to enjoy books that, on the surface, appear to be unrelated.  Last week, I reread The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  I last read that book 12 years ago as a high school assignment.  I remember the novel having such an incredible impact on me.  As a 17 year old student, I was still developing my ideas of the world but I connected with the raw emotion of the book. Living in a rural farming community in Kentucky at that time, I felt like I could see some qualities of the farmers in the book within some of my neighbors.  Plus, the plot of the book was quite tragic and resulted in one of the most shocking endings I had ever read in a book.  The raw emotional journey of these characters was what I was drawn to because that was what I understood.  The underlying political themes of the book were something I was aware of, but wouldn’t quite fully grasp in a way they required.

A few months ago, I saw on Twitter that a friend of mine recently read Steinbeck’s classic and commented how surprised how heavily feminist the book was.  I tried to figure out what she had meant by that.  I remembered the larger plot details and general theme of the book, but the subtle aspects had been lost over the last decade.  Since my friend is an ardent and respected feminist voice within our peer group, I wanted to reread the novel to understand her claim.  Plus, I had always considered The Grapes of Wrath as my favorite novel despite having only read it once over a decade prior.  It was time to revisit.

As I read Tom Joad’s journey with his family from Kansas to California, I was emotionally invested in the story again.  All the heart-wrenching moments came back in a way that I had remembered, but also in ways that I couldn’t appreciate fully before. Now that I am approaching 30, I gravitated towards different elements and picked up the subtlety more.

While rereading this book, I was struck by just how relevant a lot of themes were today.  In the novel, tenement farmers displaced by the Dust Bowl combined with the acquisition of their land by banks move out west to California where plenty of work with high wages are promised.  Packing everything they have, these migrant farmers risk their well-being for the chance at a better life.  It becomes more clear they were sold a lie the closer they get to California.  Orchards and land companies distributed thousands of handbills in the hopes of attracting more workers than they needed so they could drive the cost down.  If fifty cents an hour was promised, then the work would be given at 25 cents an hour because there will always be someone more hungry and desperate than you who is willing to take it.  This toxic relationship kept landowners and the banks rich while the migrants were starving and working themselves to death.

The issue of wages was the first thing that struck me.  Right now, millions of Americans are employed but underpaid for the work they do.  While Americans could survive forty hours per week at minimum wage a generation or two ago, it is an impossibility now.  Rising cost of living and the wage gaps require workers in minimum wage roles to work multiple jobs at nearly 80 hours a week to maintain a minimum standard of living. Much of what drives this dynamic mirrors the wage issue in The Grapes of Wrath.  Multinational conglomerates whose workforce is predominantly comprised of workers making minimum wage justify refusing to pay their employees more so they executives at the top can reward themselves with lucrative bonuses.  And while the migrant farmers in the book who protested a drop in wages were met with loss of work, so are the workers of today who protest to earn higher wages but are displaced by an automated workforce in the form of computers and touchscreens.

The other shocking revelation I experienced while rereading the book concerned the misplaced aggression in the form of nationalism and the outspoken prejudice against the migrant farmers.  As migrants moved west, they encountered a level of vitriol and hatred they were unaccustomed to.  The migrant farmers were called “Okies,” a pejorative for people from Oklahoma, despite coming from various other places.  This term was violently used against people who had little to no money, traveled in trucks overloaded with their personal belongings, and did not have adequate resources to maintain personal hygiene.  Okies were viewed as dirty people who steal and compared to dogs or vermin.  The locals in California protested these people coming into their state and enjoying their great weather and bountiful resources because they were dirty, poor, and uneducated.  And when Okies couldn’t find work, they lived in jungle camps; settlements with inadequate housing and plumbing.  Even though these migrant farmers were fellow Americans, they were treated an invasive alien force by Californians.

It is not difficult to see the modern parallel between their struggle and the struggle immigrants face today.  While the farmers in Steinbeck’s book were Americans born and raised in the country, crossing the state line was akin to crossing the border to another country.  Today, immigrants from Mexico, Europe, Syria, and many other places risk their lives to find opportunities in America.  Despite this country’s history of open immigration being a symbol of liberty and freedom, there has been a rise in fascist nationalism that has been legitimized by the current presidential administration.  Travel bans have emboldened racists and nationalists to commit violence against immigrants who are just looking for work and shelter.  These fascists claim that they are natural Americans who deserve more of the country’s inherent freedom and wealth while proclaiming that immigrants do not belong and should go somewhere else.  These fascists forget that America is a nation of immigrants, but it does nothing to dissuade their fear and anger.

In 1940, a year after Steinbeck published his novel, Woody Guthrie released his album Dust Bowl Ballads.  Included was a two-part song called “Tom Joad” detailing the character’s life after being paroled from prison.  Guthrie’s’ song summarizes key plots from the book while driving home the spiritual and political narrative of the book.  As much as I love Guthrie and his music, it is Country Joe McDonald’s cover of “Tom Joad” that I enjoy listening to more.  Running at just over seven minutes, McDonald’s version is a full-band tribute to Guthrie and a great American literary protagonist.  McDonald’s version was released in 1969 on his album Thinking of Woody Guthrie; a tribute to the American folk pioneer.  McDonald’s version features a rich folk rock production and adds a livelier interpretation of Guthrie’s lyrics.

The last time I read this book, I was a smart but inexperienced young man.  At that time, I couldn’t event vote.  Though I paid attention to politics on a surface level, I couldn’t engage on such an intimate level quite yet.   Now that I am older, I am more engaged and continuously learning and develop my outlook on important social and political issues of today.  One thing that I see is history repeating itself.  It amazes me just how relevant a book published nearly eight decades ago can be today.  It is alarming because I feel it reinforces this idea that people, as a society, have short-term memory and tend to forget important lessons because they are constantly bombarded with distractions.  I don’t know what will happen over the next few years.  Things will get harder, but I believe that the people fighting against tyranny and oppression will come out stronger for it.  While the migrant farmers did not break and their anger turned to wrath, so will the anger of the American public in the next election.

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