Bruce Springsteen admits that capturing the energy and focus of concert staples like “Ghost of Tom Joad” and “American Skin” on his recent High Hopes album was difficult. “You had to bring it home in the studio,” Springsteen tells Sirius Radio, “which is very hard to do after you play something live for a long time. It’s very, very hard to top any E Street Band live recording.”
He’d had a similar struggle with “Land of Hope and Dreams,” which found a home on 2012’s Wrecking Ball after a series of seemingly definitive on-stage readings. But that process is necessary, Springsteen says, in order for fans to become fully invested in these songs. “I feel that if it doesn’t get formally presented in a record,” Springsteen says, “they lose a little of their authority.”
Springsteen’s journey with “Joad” is of particular interest, since it first appeared as the title track on a stripped-down, folk-focused recording from the mid 1990s.
“It’s ironic, because ‘Ghost of Tom Joad’ began as a rock song for the Greatest Hits record we put out in ’95,” Springsteen says. “It began as a new song I was trying to write for the band, for that record. I couldn’t figure out a rock arrangement, so I found an acoustic arrangement — and I then wrote the rest of ‘Ghost of Tom Joad’ around that sound.”
It was only when Tom Morello — who’d covered this song with Rage Against the Machine on 2000’s Renegades — joined the E Street Band, filling in for Steven Van Zandt, that “Ghost of Tom Joad” returned to its original incarnation.
“It ended up where it began again,” Springsteen says. “He really brought it to another level, which is why I wanted it on there. Some things need to be sort of formally defined, which is why ‘American Skin’ and ‘Ghost of Tom Joad’ are on this particular collection of songs. Those two, I felt were two of my great songs — and these are two of the greatest versions of those things.”