Bryant Simon, professor of history at Temple University, is the author of A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910-1948 (1998), Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America (2004), and Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks (2009), and was coeditor of Jumpin' Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights (2000). His most recent book, The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives (2020) is a broad-ranging study of the high costs of cheap food built around the tragic story of a 1991 fatal factory fire where twenty-five workers died behind locked doors.
Simon's lecture looks at the legacy of Steinbeck's fiction, the Great Depression, and the Dust Bowl. In particular, it explores how a succession of musicians and artists from Woody Guthrie to Bruce Springsteen to Steve Earle to Rage Against the Machine use the fictional experiences on the road and in the labor camps of the enduring Steinbeck character -- the scrappy everyman, Joad -- to comment on their present and the problems on their own times. As a bigger take-away, my talk suggests that Joad and the Dust Bowl are part in a greater, though not always recognized, American political tradition of community and cooperation. This talk is suitable for wider public audiences with its focus on popular figures and sounds.