Tom Joad is a character in John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes Of Wrath. Near the end of the story, Tom makes his famous "I'll be there" speech, which is also noted in the lyrics. The idea is that the ghost of Tom Joad, the spirit of working together as a community, will prevail in times of great injustice (police brutality, economic corruption, etc.).
The Ghost Of Tom Joad is an acoustic album. Springsteen released it with very little publicity.
Springsteen wrote this as a rock song to complete the 1995 Greatest Hits album. Not liking the result, he set it aside and used it on his acoustic album a few months later.
The album has a focus on storytelling. The music is minimal and simply supports the stories.
Springsteen performed this for the first time at Neil Young's Bridge School Benefit concert in 1995.
On the 1999 E-Street Band reunion tour, Springsteen usually played this about two hours into the show. Many fans took the opportunity to grab a bathroom break or a beer.
Springsteen performed this at the Grammy Awards in 1997.
Rage Against The Machine recorded this in 1997 and released it as a single. Their version reached #35 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and #34 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart. It also appeared on their 2000 album Renegades.
In 2008 Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello joined Springsteen and the E Street Band onstage in Anaheim to perform an electrified version of the song. Five years later, Springsteen recorded a full-band rearrangement in Los Angeles, the day before traveling to Australia for that country's leg of the Wrecking Ball Tour. This version, which featured Morello on guitar and vocals, was included on his 2014 album High Hopes. "I am not a casual Bruce Springsteen fan – I am a big Bruce Springsteen fan," Morello told Rolling Stone. "And 'The Ghost of Tom Joad' is one of his best songs. It cuts to the core of his social-justice writing. This version starts as a plaintive ballad, which feels like a lament, and becomes a full-bore rocker that feels like a threat."
Speaking to NPR correspondent Ann Powers, Bruce said the High Hopes version of the song was his "original realization of it." He explained: "I originally wrote it as a rock song for the E Street Band and we didn't quite pull it off and that led to The Ghost of Tom Joad acoustic album, but I always had in my mind that, you know, that was its inception. That was how it was originally conceived, so we started to fool around with it onstage. I came up with a version of it and then Tom walked in one night and just exploded the boundaries of the thing and turned it into just something else."
Springsteen admitted in a 2014 interview with The New York Times that he didn't read The Grapes of Wrath until after he released The Ghost of Tom Joad.