Monterey Peninsula personal reflections

Hard Travelin’ Times in Search of Tom Joad

Bruce Springsteen released the album The Ghost of Tom Joad in 1995. The album was his first album (Billboard highest rank #11) not to reach the Top 10 albums on Billboard 200 after a streak of eight consecutive Top 5 albums.

The highway is alive tonight
But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
Searchin’ for the ghost of Tom Joad

– Bruce Springsteen “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

Bruce Springsteen’s music career is one that I have followed since 1972 when I was fortunate enough to be in radio distance of a great rock radio station in Norfolk, Virginia that played Greetings from Asbury Park tunes regularly when I was in 6th grade and lived at Fort Eustis, Virginia.

The Ghost of Tom Joad is one of Bruce’s albums I listen to more frequently these days. Here is youTube video of Bruce performing The Ghost of Tom Joad.


The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Only a couple of years ago did I finally hear a reference that Tom Joad was the protagonist of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The novel won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.

Like Sherlock Holmes I have major gaps in my knowledge base. I can talk Dostoevsky and Gogol, but I’m not too familiar with Steinbeck and Faulkner. Consequently, I never read any John Steinbeck before this year and I still haven’t read The Grapes of Wrath. But, like Bruce Springsteen and Woody Guthrie before him, I’ve seen the 1940 John Ford movie.

The basic story is farmers from Oklahoma during the 1930s great depression lose their farm and the dustbowl, a major drought that makes growing crops near impossible in Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas forces hundreds of thousands of migrants to move to California looking for work and land.

Tom Joad and family come to California and experience life in the migrant camps. There were hundreds of workers applying for every menial job. Wages were low due to the bargaining power being at the growers’ discretion. Fighting for higher wages was truly a fight between company thugs and workers trying to organize and the result in the novel is Tom Joad ends up killing a farmers association anti-union thug who had killed Tom’s friend and Tom has to flee the migrant camp and leave his family.

Steinbeck (1902-1968) grew up in the Salinas Valley and Monterey Peninsula and he was knowledgeable about agricultural farming and working conditions in the fields. He visited migrant camps in California during the 1930s and wrote stories on different types of people living in conditions of poor sanitation, low wages and food scarcity. People were travelin’ hard in California back then.

The Grapes of Wrath tells a story that was representative of the state of life in California for hundreds of thousands of families at the time it was published. The story bears great relevance to many of the conditions in the country today for people struggling to find work, a home and enough food. Travel for survival is a very different condition than travel for leisure or business work.

32nd annual Steinbeck Festival, Salinas, California May 3-6, 2012

Internet searches over the past year reading stuff about John Steinbeck’s work and life left me wanting to know more about this man who made Monterey County and the California Central Valley agricultural fields and orchards a world-famous location through his American literature.

That is why I jumped on the opportunity to get a press pass to the 32nd annual Steinbeck Festival in Salinas May 3-6, 2012.

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Photo: Salinas Valley artichoke plants near Castroville I passed driving back to Monterey from Salinas. “No Trespassing” sign in the foreground and Mount Toro in the background.

While I learned much more about John Steinbeck as a man and writer and traveler through the National Steinbeck Center exhibits and a few seminars, the real immersion in new knowledge I experienced last week at the Steinbeck Festival was learning a great deal about American folksinger Woody Guthrie (1912-1967). I am a music fan and I steered myself to most of the Woody Guthrie seminars.

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Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, New York City, 1954

Woody Guthrie Centennial 2012

In 1996 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio and Case Western Reserve University in the same city presented a ten-day celebration honoring Woody Guthrie. This was the first major conference organized around presenting the legacy of Woody Guthrie with photos, lectures, films and concerts held in support of the Woody Guthrie Archives.

Robert Santelli organized that event in 1996. I had never heard of Robert Santelli before last weekend at the 32nd annual Steinbeck Festival in Salinas presented in conjunction with the Woody Guthrie Centennial.

Robert Santelli has written books on Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen. He was Vice President of Education and Public Programs for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio (1993-2000), CEO of the Experience Music Project Museum in Seattle (2000-2008) and is currently the Executive Director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles (2008 – present).

A California photographer/journalist I met at the 32nd annual Steinbeck Festival pointed out to me the small group of only about 200 people meant an opportunity to speak directly with people like Robert Santelli during the breaks between seminars and music presentations.

Bob Santelli is one of the driving forces behind the Woody100 centennial events and he gave a dynamic seminar on the legacy of Woody Guthrie last Friday at the Steinbeck Festival in Salinas.

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Woody Guthrie also wrote a song “Tom Joad” aka “Ballad of Tom Joad” after seeing the movie The Grapes of Wrath. The story behind the song is Woody sat down at a typewriter one night in New York City with a half-gallon of wine and the next morning the bottle was empty and the song was done. John Steinbeck reportedly said something to the effect that Woody’s 17 verses of Tom Joad could have saved him the trouble of writing a novel.

There was a Steinbeck Festival seminar given by Gavin Cologne-Brookes, American Literature professor at Bath Spa University England, “The Ghost of Tom Joad: Steinbeck, Guthrie and Springsteen”. The seminar was loaded with information about the novel and songs, but he didn’t play any music to enlighten us.

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I had never heard Tom Joad by Woody Guthrie and I don’t think the song was played in the three Woody Guthrie musical concerts given over three evenings at the Festival.

Tom Joad – Part 1 and 2 – Woody Guthrie (1940).

“My eyes has been my camera taking pictures of the world and my songs has been my messages that I tried to scatter across the back sides and along the steps of the fire escapes and on the window sills and through the dark halls…” Bound for Glory (1943) – Woody Guthrie autobiography.

Nora Guthrie, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion

The Woody Guthrie Centennial Concert featured Woody Guthrie’s grand-daughter who is musician Arlo Guthrie’s daughter. Arlo is Woody’s son. Sarah Lee performs with her husband Johnny Irion who is the nephew of Thom Steinbeck, John Steinbeck’s son. Although John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie never met, there is now a Steinbeck-Guthrie familial connection.

Sarah Lee and Johnny did a wonderful rendition of “California Stars”, lyrics of Woody Guthrie with music by Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett of Wilco you can hear here in this YouTube video performed by Billy Bragg and Wilco.

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Nora Guthrie, Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Arlo Guthrie’s sister and director of the Woody Guthrie Foundation, joins Sarah Lee and Johnny on stage to sing “This Land is Your Land”. Rob Wasserman, bassist extraordinaire, accompanied Sarah Lee and Johnny. Nora Guthrie had a great story to tell about meeting Bob Dylan the first time.


Blogger Disclosure: The basic deal is I got a 3-day press pass to the Steinbeck Festival that allowed me to get a really fantastic experience with hours of lectures, music, film, activities and a chance to meet knowledgeable people. The festival at times seemed like a social activism progressives’ workshop for change in America. #Occupy repeatedly came up as a bright sign in current social awareness. There was top-notch talkin’ and singin’ going on for three days and my experiences would cost regular paying folk about $200 in ticket fees.

Learning a bit of American music, literature and historical culture is the kind of travel experiences I enjoy. I will likely write a couple more posts on the 2012 Steinbeck Festival May 3-6 at the National Steinbeck Center Salinas, California.

That is my payment for free passage to the Steinbeck Festival.

National Steinbeck Center Salinas, California is open year round. shares the calendar for other Woody Guthrie events happening in 2012. has a thorough listing of about 3,000 Woody Guthrie song lyrics, biography and other educational links.


  • Scottrick May 8, 2012

    Never read Steinbeck? And you live near Monterey?! Hehe, it’s okay. If you get a chance, East of Eden is probably my favorite. Cannery Row is also pretty good, although the vignettes can confuse the plot sometime.

  • Ric Garrido May 8, 2012

    I read Cannery Row this year.

    Turns out that when I was 21 I worked at a lobster aquaculture farm in a cannery building directly adjacent to Ed Rickett’s Pacific Biological Laboratories and house on Cannery Row.

    One of my jobs was feeding lobsters and I prepared the meal by fish head grinding. I know first-hand the stink of Cannery Row. So did many of the people around me.

  • aadvantagegeek May 8, 2012

    I attend the Woody Guthrie Festival in Okemah, OK every July.

    I hope someday you can bookend your visit to the Steinbeck Festival with trip to Woody’s hometown for a five day celebration of music, poetry, history, and tribute to Woody’s ideas and legacy.

    Enjoyed your post, thanks for sharing!

  • Brendan May 9, 2012

    Upon seeing the headline, I definitively decided that you are the coolest boardingarea blogger, and my travel generally doesn’t focus on chain hotels. I’m also not a huge Springtseen fan, and the only album I ever bought of his was Ghost… The album is such a nice not-trying-to-be-popular musical work. It arguably makes very casual fans try to like it if they are not into progressive politics and reasonable levels of social justice. It is kind of awesome that you highlight hotel deals without the effusive credit card sign-up bonuses that characterize some other blogs. While there is little indie about Springsteen, you arguably win the street-cred designation among leading, and, I’d assume, less-remunerated, travel bloggers with this post.

  • Brendan May 9, 2012

    doh…sorry, I meant ‘more’ not ‘less’.

  • Ric Garrido May 9, 2012

    @aadvantagegeek – I was thinking about trying to get out to Okemah, OK for the Woody Guthrie festival this July. I don’t think I will have the cash though.

    Gotta go to Disneyland with the 6-year old niece for her Birthday at the end of June.

    The Penn State conference (September) or the D.C. Kennedy Center performance in October might be possibilities.

    @Brendan – Thanks.

    One of the cool things I noticed in my research this week is someone like Billy Bragg who has a statement on his website about how the internet allows him to work directly with people.

    I kind of like that about blogging.

    Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, contacted Billy Bragg in the 90s about putting some of Woody’s song lyrics to music. There are now three albums of songs released.

    Billy Bragg and people like Jonatha Brooke and Wilco have been working on music for Woody Guthrie’s lyrics since 1995. Woody wrote hundreds of lyrics for years in the 1950s and 1960s when he was sick with Huntington’s Disease and could no longer play guitar.

  • LuAnne May 9, 2012

    nice article!i also have been attending WOODY FEST in okemah oklahoma,for the past 10 years.if you are interested in this event,please make the effort to runs july 11-15 this is a free do have to pay a small fee for camping.wednesday night is a ticketed event,Arlo will play the fundraiser.
    and,yes it will be hot weather!always meet life long friends ,the best,coolest musicians on the planet,and so many great memories!check out WOODY GUTHRIE FREE FOLK FESTIVAL.COM hope to meet some of you there.oh yeah, tom joad by springsteen is one of my all time faves!

  • Ric Garrido May 10, 2012

    Follow-up on Gavin Cologne-Brookes, American Literature professor at Bath Spa University England who did “The Ghost of Tom Joad: Steinbeck, Guthrie and Springsteen” seminar.

    One of my great regrets of the Steinbeck Festival was the Friday when they had author book signings and book sale tables set up in the National Steinbeck Center. I didn’t buy one of Gavin’s books.

    I attended the Red Pony Field Trip May 3 and Gavin was also on that trip to a Salinas Ranch where John Steinbeck played as a kid. The ranch is the setting for The Red Pony stories.

    We talked about Bruce Springsteen and Gavin told how he traveled the USA in the early 80s on a Greyhound bus going to all 48 states in about six months.

    In 1977 I crossed the country on a Greyhound bus from Salinas, California to Tampa, Florida and we both agreed that being able to travel the country at that time for about $50 to $100 unlimited travel over 30 days was an experience of a lifetime.

    Gavin wrote a book about his bus travels and seeing America titled “If I’m Ever Back This Way”.

    I didn’t buy his book at the National Steinbeck Center author signings opportunity, but I took a photo of the book cover showing the front of a Greyhound bus.

    Turns out the book is out-of-print on every site I checked online. I hope Gavin comes back this way so I can get his book of travels in America.

  • Gavin Cologne-Brookes June 19, 2013

    Hi Ric,

    email me a postal address and I’ll send you a signed copy of If I’m Ever Back This Way. Life is too short for regrets!

  • Ric Garrido June 19, 2013

    @Gavin – email on the way. I am hanging around the house today feeling too sick to write. And then I see your comment on the blog and that certainly lifted my spirit.

    Re-reading this post I realized how much the past year following the Steinbeck-Guthrie conference turned me on to traveling the U.S. and seeing places and meeting people that are often referred to as places in flyover country.

    I read The Grapes of Wrath about two weeks after writing this post. I was mesmerized by Steinbeck’s words.

    I read today that Monterey County had its biggest agricultural crops value ever at around $4 billion.
    Leaf lettuce passed up strawberries as the top crop with both worth around $800 million. Head Lettuce is #3 at $476 million. Broccoli is #4 at $316 million and wine grapes are #6 at $214 million. Spinach and cauliflower also make the top ten. Artichokes do not rank up there, unless they are part of the miscellaneous vegetables at $117 million.

    Monterey County wealth is still in the hands of farmers.

    And dependent on the labor of migrant workers.

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