Steinbeck Studies 15.2 (2004) 133-136
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"Here Comes the Rainbow Again"
Listening to a local college radio station late last year, I was startled to hear a voice saying, "This is a song that was inspired from The Grapes of Wrath...." followed by a narrative of the lunch counter scene from chapter 15 sung by Kris Kristofferson in a live album from San Francisco, Broken Freedom Song (Oh Boy Records 2003). Such sincere Steinbeck inspiration sparked my curiosity, and that of the Steinbeck Center through Susan Shillinglaw, to discover the source of the lunch counter song, "Here Comes That Rainbow Again." An effort was made to contact Kris Kristofferson through his agent, Tamara Saviano, in Nashville, with a few e-mail questions. The results reveal a fascinating process of musical dialogue with the Steinbeck text and the influence of The Grapes of Wrath upon a singer/songwriter who came of age in the wake of the Dust Bowl period.
Kris Kristofferson was born in Brownsville, Texas, in 1936, son of a U.S. Air Force general; the family moved to San Mateo, California, for Kris's high-school years after the Second World War. He recalls reading Steinbeck in class:
I read The Grapes of Wrath in either high school or college in California. Also, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men. I wanted to be a writer and admired Steinbeck. I am sure that growing up in Brownsville, Texas, helped me identify with the characters in The Grapes of Wrath. And it was a wonderful, unforgettable movie. [End Page 133]
He attended Pomona College, where he was a football star and won an Atlantic Monthly prize for creative writing and a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. In England he had a brief career as a rock-and-roll singer, then joined the U.S. Army as a helicopter pilot; in 1965 he was assigned to teach English at West Point. Instead he stopped in Nashville where he struggled as a songwriter, with eventual success in songs like "For the Good Times" and "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down." He met Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings, and later formed a group, The Highwaymen. With continuing hits, "Me and Bobby McGee" and "Help Me Make It through the Night," Kristofferson established himself as a major country music singer and songwriter, winning numerous country music awards.
Around 1980 Kristofferson wrote "Here Comes That Rainbow Again":
I might have seen the movie on TV. Something made me think of that scene, which always profoundly moved me, and it came out in a song, "Here Comes That Rainbow Again." Johnny Cash said in his autobiography that it might be his favorite song by any writer of our time.
In the original novel, Steinbeck set the lunch counter scene as a narrative episode along Highway 66 somewhere in Oklahoma, while the Ford film sets the scene with the Joad children, Ruthie and Winfield, staring at the candy counter while Al Joad bargains for a loaf of bread. In Kristofferson's song, the scene is enhanced by his artifice of a thunderstorm and its clearing rainbow, invented beyond the original Steinbeck text:
The scene was a small roadside café
The waitress was sweeping the floor
Two truck drivers drinking their coffee
And two Okie kids by the door
"How much are them candies?" They asked her
"How much have you got?" She replied
"We've only a penny between us"
"Them's two for a penny," She lied [End Page 134]
And the daylight grew heavy with thunder
With the smell of rain on the wind
Ain't it just like a human
Here comes that rainbow again
One truck driver called to the waitress
After the kids went outside
"Them candies ain't two for a penny"
"So what's it to you," she replied
In silence they finished their coffee
And got up and nodded goodbye
She called, "Hey, you left too much money"
"So what's it to you," they replied
And the daylight...(Chorus)
The song was originally...