This is Woody Guthrie's The Ballad of Tom Joad, based on John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath:
Although Steinbeck appreciated Guthrie's abilities, on the subject of this song he is reported as saying: “Took me years to do Grapes of Wrath and that little squirt tells the whole story in just a few stanzas.”
It's hard not to be sympathetic with Steinbeck. This song is simply remarkable in the way it distils a huge novel into a mere six or so minutes. In this, Guthrie's effort is similar to those nameless singers who gave us the legacy of the muckle sangs, the big songs in the folk repertoire. Listen to The Ballad of Tom Joad, and then to some of the muckle sangs like Glenlogie,or Tam Lin and you can see the same literary skill at work. These are the product of genius. The concision is extraordinary.
There are only two flaws in Woody's song. Firstly, the lack of Ma Joad. She is the absolute centre of the novel, but she only appears in passing in the song. That's probably not surprising, however, because I suspect the character of Ma Joad was far before her time. Indeed, Steinbeck intended Tom Joad to be the central character of Grapes of Wrath, not Ma, but it was she who stole the novel: women weren't meant to be the dominant ones in the 1930s (and have things changed that much? Probably not) but this woman simply burst through the novel and took it over.
And secondly, that ending. How could you not include the ending, when Rose of Sharon, previously a petulant, selfish, self-absorbed child, becomes a figure of salvation, a woman of honour, a beacon of hope. It is an extraordinary scene, and it should have been included.
Of course, Woody based the song on John Ford's film rather than Steinbeck's novel, and he probably never read the novel. I haven't seen the film so I don't know if that ending is reproduced in it. Anyone know?