Tom Joad – Words and Music by Woody Guthrie
“Tom Joad got out of the old McAlester Pen;
There he got his parole.
After four long years on a man killing charge,
Tom Joad come a-walkin’ down the road, poor boy,
Tom Joad come a-walkin’ down the road.”
Have you ever read “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck? I have, more than once, and it is a wonderful novel, perhaps one of the greatest of the last century. The movie was pretty good, too. The book is a masterpiece, though.
Many people know the book well and are familiar with the story of the Joad family. Others may have only a faint idea of what happens in the book. Some may even believe that it is a work of nonfiction, although it is true that John Steinbeck visited actual migrant camps before writing this book and the visits inspired him to look into this phenomenon and write about it.
The Joads were “Okies,” portrayed by the author as helpless victims of the collapse of the Capitalist system during the Great Depression of the 1930s. They were victims, yet they fought back and struggled to survive in a harsh world which they had no part in creating. They were poor sharecroppers in Oklahoma forced off their dust-bowl farm land by predatory land speculators and greedy bankers. So, after reading handbills promising ample agricultural work with good wages out west, they loaded up the truck and moved to California, the promised land where Grandpa could grab a handful of juicy grapes whenever he wanted to.
Well, the journey wasn’t too bad, although Grandpa died; Noah just somehow drifted away down the Colorado River; and Grandma never made it across the desert. The real trouble started when they reached California. You see, this story takes place late in the 1930s toward the end of the Great Depression. People living then didn’t know that they would soon be rescued from incredible poverty by the prosperity brought on by World War II. But by the time the Joads got to the promised land, too many migrants had already arrived there. If the newcomers were able somehow to settle down they would be able to get on Relief; their children would have to be accepted into the public schools; and they would become voters. The locals did not want any more newcomers. They did not want any more “Reds.”
Because of his experiences in the repressive atmosphere of California at that time, Tom eventually discovers that he, too, is a “Red.” A lot of the things that he hears and sees lead him to this conclusion. To the people who have lived in California for a long time someone who wants more money for the work he is doing is a “Red.” A man who sees an empty plot of land and wants to grow vegetables on it is a “Red.” And someone who needs to steal food to feed his hungry children is a “Red.” So it’s like this: If you are called a “Red” often enough, you start to believe that you are one, and if you believe that you are one, you indeed have become one.
Tom eventually kills a man in a fight brought on by the “class struggle.” He tries to hide with Ma’s willing help, but he has to leave his family when the police get too close. What happens to him and where he goes remains a mystery.
So, when I ask what happened to Tom Joad, I am really wondering not only what happened to him but to all of the “Okies,” their children, and their grandchildren, whether they took that long trip to the promised land, or just stayed put. Tom represents them all.
After he left his family Tom could have drifted from one agricultural job to another and then gone to work in one of the defense plants that sprung up in California once World War II began. Or perhaps he joined the Merchant Marine or one of the Military services after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Marriage, children, and job success might have followed the War. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that his descendants, whether in the West or in Oklahoma are no longer “Reds.” If anything, they are Red-Staters.