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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, September 9, 2009

THE BALLAD OF TOM JOAD: A Reflection on That One Big Soul

Like all true stories, there are more than a couple of versions to how Woody Guthrie got around to writing the Ballad of Tom Joad. In fact Woody is responsible for a couple of those versions, himself.

The gist of it appears to be that Woody, who was not famous for wide reading, one day went to a Manhattan theater and saw John Ford’s masterwork, “The Grapes of Wrath.” He was really impressed, really impressed. He thought it went right to the heart of the matter and was worried that someone without the quarter it cost to see the movie might not get to hear it.

His friend Pete Seeger recounts how he ran into Woody that very day, and how Woody feverishly asked if Pete had a typewriter he could use. Pete said no, but that his friend Jerry Oberwager did. So, they purchased a half-gallon jug of wine (of course…) and went to Jerry’s apartment, a six-flight walk up.

Pete tells us how Woody, “sat down and started typing away. He would stand up every few seconds and test out a verse on his guitar and sit down and type some more.” Pete added, “About one o’clock (Jerry) and I got so sleepy we couldn’t stay awake. In the morning we found Woody curled up on the floor under the table; the half-gallon of wine was almost empty and the completed ballad was sitting near the typewriter.”

Tom Joad he got out the old McAlester Pen He got his parole After four long years on a man killing charge Tom Joad come walkin' down the road, poor boy Tom Joad come walkin' down the road.

Tom Joad, he met a truck drivin' man, And he caught him a ride Said "I just got loose from the McAlester Pen On a charge called homicide, On a charge called homicide."

Well that truck rolled away in a cloud of dust Tommy turned his face toward home. He met Preacher Casy And they had a little drink. They found that his family was gone, They found that his family was gone.

They found his mother's old fashioned shoe, and they found his daddy's hat. And they found little Muley, and Muley said, "they been tractored off by the cats, Tommy boy. They been tractored off by the cats."

Tom Joad, he walked down to the neighbor's farm, and he found his family. He took Preacher Casy and he loaded up the car, And his mother said, "We got to get away, Tommy Boy." His mother said, "we got to get away."

Now the twelve of the Joads, they made mighty heavy load, And Grampa Joad, he did cry. He picked up a handful of land in his hand. He said, "I'm stayin' with this farm till I die. I'm stayin' here till I die."

They fed him short ribs and coffee and syrup. And Grampa Joad, he did die. They buried Grampa Joad by the side of the road, buried Grandma on the California side. Buried Grandma on the California side.

They stood on a mountain and they looked to the west, and it looked like the Promised Land. That bright green valley with a river runnin' through held work for every single hand. They thought, "There'll be work for every single hand."

The Joads road away to the Jungle camp and there they cook them some stew. And the hungry little kids said, "We'd like to have some, too, please. We'd like to have some, too."

Now, the Deputy Sheriff fired loose at a man, and he shot a woman in the back. Before he could take his aim again, Preacher Casy dropped him in his tracks, Preach Casy dropped him in his tracks.

Well, they handcuffed Casy and they took him to jail and then he got away. He met with Tom Joad on the old River Bride. and these few words he did say, poor boy. These few words he did say:

"Well, I preached for Lord for a mighty long time, preached about the rich and the poor. Us working folks gotta get together, cause we ain't got a chance anymore, Tommy boy. We ain't got a chance anymore."

Well, the Deputies come, And Tom and Casy, they did run To the bridge where the water run down. But the vigilante they hit Casy with a club, and they laid Preacher Casy on the ground, They laid Preacher Casy on the ground.

Tom Joad, he grabbed that Deputy's club, And hit him over the head. Tom Joad took flight in the dark and rainy night, A deputy and Preacher lying dead, a deputy and preacher lying dead.

Well, Tom run back to where his mama was alseep. and he woke her up out of the bed. and he kissed goodbye to the mother that he loved. And he said what Preacher Casy said, Tom Joad he said what Preacher Casy said.

"Well, everybody might be just one big soul, or it looks that way to me. Everywhere you look, in the day or the night, That's where I'm gonna be, Ma. That's where I'm gonna be.

"Wherever little children are hungry and cry, wherever people ain't free, whevever men and women are fightin' for their rights, that's where I'm gonna be, Ma. That's where I'm gonna be."

I don’t actually recall which was first for me - the movie or the book. Probably I saw the movie first, although I discovered Steinbeck in High School and devoured most of his books before dropping out in my senior year. So, I’m really not sure. That said, in my mind’s eye Tom Joad does look like Henry Fonda, Preacher Casey looks exactly like John Carradine, and Ma is without any doubt, Jane Darwell.

Of course the movie is slightly more optimistic in terms of what happens to the family than we get in the book. And naturally there’s more in the book. For instance, a final scene that is just as vivid in my mind’s eye as if it had been in the movie. But, each works. The story is there in the book, the movie and the song. And I absolutely agree with Woody Guthrie, this is a world-class story. It is a true story. And, as with all true stories, there are many different versions. Like the blind men and the elephant, we each of us find some part that is more meaningful for us.

So, in a column he wrote for the “People’s World,” which I think was a Communist newspaper of the day, Woody opined “The Grapes of Wrath,” you know is about us pullin’ out of Oklahoma and Arkansas, and down south, and a driftin’ around over (to the) state of California, busted, disgusted, down and out, and a lookin’ for work. Shows you how come us to be that a way. Shows the dam bankers men that broke us and the dust that choked us, and comes right out in plain old English and says what to do about it.

“It says you got to get together and have some meetins, and stick together, and raise old billy hell till you get youre job, and get your farm back, and your house and your chickens and your groceries and your clothes, and your money back. Go to see “Grapes of Wrath,” pardner, go to see it and don’t miss.”

True enough, something like that’s there in the story. I think he’s got his hand on the broad flank of that elephant. But it’s Woody’s conclusion that takes my breath away. After the call to equity, and perhaps to revolution, Woody tells us, “You was the star in that picture. Go and see your own self and hear your own words and your own song.”

Of course there’s politics in the story. There is a call to human dignity and worth that we could do well to remember today, when a mob at a town hall can shout down a woman in a wheel chair pleading for access to health care. But, I find the politics here in much the same way the Christian liberation theology movement finds direction with Mary’s song, the Magnificat. There is, without a doubt, a call to action. But for me, that action, that action found both in the Magnificat and in the Grapes of Wrath, is found because of something deep and compelling and truest true that is also presented in that story at the same time as a call to action.

It tells us why. It tells us why we need to reach out, one to another. It tells us why we need to care beyond our own hurt, whatever that hurt might be. Here we are invited to listen to our own words formed within our own throats. Here we are invited to sing our own song, the melody of our bones and muscle. But what is that song? Well, I believe what those words are, what that song is, was found near the beginning of the story and repeated near the end.

You might imagine that in the story found in the book and the movie and the song, the character I’d be most fascinated with is the preacher, Jim Casey. And you’d be right. In the book Casey, for several reasons a failed minister, but one, and a big one was, as you may recall after preaching up a storm he would feel the need to accompany a lady out to the fields, and apparently taken up with the spirit, many were willing to go with him. Well, that failed preacher gives us his take on the great matter, what I think isn’t the elephant’s ear or leg or tail, or even its broad flank, but rather its heart.

In the novel the preacher sings to us, "I says, 'What's this call, this sperit' An' I says, 'It's love. I love people so much I'm fit to bust." ..."an' sometimes I love 'em fit to bust, an' I want to make 'em happy, so I been preachin' somepin I thought would make 'em happy"

Of course, that’s a set up. The intuition that we call love is powerful and it partakes of truth. But as Casey knows, love is complex, powerful and can be beguiling. It can lead to unhealthy things, as well as healthy. And for him for too long Casey preached what we’d have to call comforting lies, about a shallower love, not the deeper but vastly more dangerous love. He was preaching sentimental love, not the love that creates and sustains and destroys worlds in its terrible embrace. But eventually things happened. Things happened all around him, and things happened in the dark parts of his heart.

And from that place Preacher Casey tells us the secret, our secret, your secret, and mine. "I figgered, maybe it's all men an' all women we love; maybe that's the Holy Sperit -- the human sperit -- the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul.”

One big soul. Later, at the end of the story, here in the words given us by the movie version, Tom Joad, an unrepentant killer, he gets it, too; and he sings the song, he sings our song.

Tom Joad is talking to his Ma. “I been thinking about us, too, about our people living like pigs and good rich land layin' fallow. Or maybe one guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starvin'. And I been wonderin' if all our folks got together and yelled…”

Ma Joad replies, “Tommy, they'd drag you out and cut you down just like they done to Casey.”

Tom says, “They'd drag me anyways. Sooner or later they'll get me one way or another. Till then…”

“Tommy, you're not aimin' to kill nobody.”

“No, Ma, not that. That ain't it. Just, as long as I'm an outlaw anyways, maybe I can do something, just find out somethin', just scrounge around and maybe find out what it is that's wrong and see if they ain't somethin' that can be done about it. I ain't thought it out that clear, Ma. I can't. I don't know enough.”

“How am I gonna know about ya, Tommy? They could kill ya and I'd never know. They could hurt ya. How am I gonna know?”

“Maybe it's like Casey says. A fellow ain't got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then...”

“Then what, Tom?”

“Then it don't matter. I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be everywhere, wherever you can look. Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready and where people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build. I'll be there, too.”

“I don't understand it, Tom.”

“Me, neither, Ma, but - just somethin' I been thinkin' about.”

Somewhere in the book and the movie Casey explains how he can’t be a preacher anymore because a preacher needs to know, and he doesn’t know. Of course, not knowing is most intimate, is the most intimate. Casey’s not knowing, Ma’s not knowing, Tom’s not knowing. If we find that place of not knowing, it becomes the dark loam of our lives, that deep not knowing is where the seeds of life germinate and from which life, all life, our lives, grows.

My colleague Mark Christian wrote on this theme a while back. In his sermon he cited a song by the Bluesman Blind Willie Jefferson who sang “I’m gonna ask a question/Please answer if you can/Can anybody’s children tell me/Tell me what is the soul of a man?” Blind Willie goes on to answer that question, “As far as I can understand/it’s nothing but a burnin’ light…” It’s nothing but a burning light. When a blind person starts telling you about the light, I suggest it’s time to stop and listen.

When we truly don’t know, when we open our hearts wide to what is, when we go all the way into the dark, into our not knowing, we find there’s a burning light at the heart of it all. Call it what you like. Love comes to mind, real love. But push it and it fails, like all words fail, in the face of that dazzling dark light. Another word that rises for me, and, which, of course, fails, as well, but still, still, sometimes we have to speak: is soul, is our soul, our one big soul.

And here’s my point. If we find that light inside the dark of our lives, then, then my dear friends, like the pillar of fire guiding the children of Israel to a promised land, that burning light will show us the way.

With that light which is our one big soul guiding us we can restore broken lives. With that light we can find justice and mercy flowing like water. With that burning light birthing endlessly from the darkness within us and guiding us, we can heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, restore ancient devastations and co-create a world that can be.

That’s our calling, my friends, my sisters, my brothers, my soul; that’s our story, the truest true.