Tom Joad’s Last Words

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BURGIN MATHEWS

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…

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