The Grapes of Wrath Casy's Song Significance

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

A dirty drifter hums a tune under a tree by the side of the road. In this lesson we'll learn about the significance of the song he sings. We'll explore the character of Reverend Jim Casy: his fall from the Church and his free-thinking philosophy.

First Impressions

Before ever meeting a man face to face, you have an idea of what that person will be like. Even from far off, you immediately square them up. You'll notice his face, his clothing, his demeanor. You can tell a lot about a man from his clothes. From that, you'll paint a picture of the man's character.

We first meet Jim Casy, this haggard drifter, lounging beneath the shade of a tree by the side of the road. Steinbeck describes Casy's appearance: 'For clothes he wore overalls and a blue shirt. A denim coat with brass buttons and a spotted brown hat creased like a pork pie lay on the ground beside him. Canvas sneakers, gray with dust, lay near by where they had fallen when they were kicked off.' Significantly, he no longer wears the signs of religious authority. No mention of a cross or a collar.

Dust Bowl travelers looking for shade
dust bowl road

Before he even notices Tom, we hear Casy whistles the tune of 'Yes Sir, that's my baby,' a popular ragtime song. Then, he begins to sing the lyrics of a hymnal to that melody.

'Yes, sir, that's my Saviour,
Je-sus is my Saviour,
Je-sus is my Saviour now.
On the level
'S not the devil,
Jesus is my Saviour now.'

Let's take a look at how this song reflects on Casy's character.

A Reformed Evangelist

Casy's song reflects the character's distrust of organized religion. Combining a popular melody with religious lyrics, the song becomes a parody. Casy deliberately exaggerated the devotional in order to make fun of organized religion, the Bible, and the image of the upright priest. Mixing the holy words with fanciful melody undermines the power of the church.

As it turns out, this is the preacher who had baptized Tom way back when: Reverend Jim Casy, a Burning Busher. Steinbeck's brief mention of the Burning Bush is actually quite telling. A splinter group of Methodists, the Burning Bush sect was first organized in 1900. They were passionately evangelistic, meaning that they believed firmly in the truth of the Bible and drew heavily on scripture in their sermons. Describing his experiences in the church tent, Casy recalls, 'I used ta get the people jumpin' an' talkin' in tongues and glory-shoutin' till they just fell down an' passed out.' But fallen on hard times, Casy is filled with doubt. He leaves the church and wanders, contemplating virtue, love, and identity.

Services at the Pentecostal Church of God. Harlan County, Kentucky, 1946.

All the talk of Jesus and God and salvation has lost its meaning. Casy doubts the truth of the bible. Contrary to proper Christian teachings, Casy wonders if the Bible may just relate stories, as opposed to historical truth. Casy confesses to Tom: 'No, I don't know nobody name' Jesus. I know a bunch of stories.' When we first meet Jim Casy in chapter 4, he comes across as a free-thinking spiritual prophet in search of a flock.

Taking the Lord's Name in Vain

In addition to his mockery of the hymnal, Jim Casy's song introduces another important theme: blasphemy. 'Jesus Christ!' 'Oh, Holy Hell!' Blasphemy, or sacrilegious profanity, can be a punishable offense, depending on how strict your Church is about the Holy Scripture. Steinbeck pushes the envelope when he shows his Casy and the Joads cursing because their words suggest a rejection or fall from religion.

Here's a telling example. When Casy and Tom first meet by the side of the road, the preacher slips up. 'An' I got to thinkin' how in hell, s'cuse me, how can the devil get in …' Interestingly, over the course of their conversation, Casy relaxes and is finally able to speak freely.

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