COUNTRY MUSIC MEETS IMPEACHMENT: The Okie from Muskogee wasn't!

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 1, 2019

Except as a cultural matter:
We've always had a bit of a bias against the late country music legend, Merle Haggard.

Back in 1969, Haggard, already a rising star within the world of country music, released the deeply unhelpful Vietnam-era culture-war single, (I'm Proud to Be An) Okie From Muskogee.

The song, which became a major hit, was an anthem to the cultural superiority of President Nixon's "Middle America."
We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don't take no trips on LSD;

We don't burn no draft cards down on Main Street
But we love living right and being free.
We don't make a party out of loving
But we like holding hands and pitching woo;
We don't let our hair grow long and shaggy
Like the hippies out in San Francisco do.

[Chorus]
And I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee
A place where even squares can have a ball.

We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse
And white lightnin's still the biggest thrill of all.
We're going to guess that Haggard, then 32, had already moved beyond the limited practice of "holding hands and pitching woo." Whatever the truth of that matter might be, he followed with another culture-war single, (You're Walkin' On) The Fightin' Side of Me. That song included the familiar culture-war lyric we've highlighted below:
I hear people talkin' bad
About the way they have to live here in this country
Harpin' on the wars we fight
And gripin' 'bout the way things oughta be.
And I don't mind 'em switchin' sides
And standin' up for things they believe in
But when they're runnin' down our country, man
They're walkin' on the fightin' side of me.


They're walkin' on the fightin' side of me
Runnin' down a way of life our fightin' men have fought and died to keep
If you don't love it, leave it
Let this song I'm singin' be a warnin'

When you're runnin' down our country, Hoss,
You're walkin' on the fightin' side of me.
"If you don't love it, leave it!" Donald J. Trump returned to this unhelpful framework not too long ago.

Okie From Muskogee was as especially unhelpful addition to that era's destructive culture wars. Those wars have never really subsided, leading us to the red-blue divide which is so pronounced today as we look toward an impeachment inquiry or maybe the full freakin' deal.

Full disclosure:

Thanks to his high-profile hit song, we'd always assumed that Haggard actually was an Okie from Muskogee! Watching Ken Burns' 16-hour film, Country Music, on PBS in the past two weeks, we learned that that wasn't exactly the case, except as a matter of culture and tribe, and of course as a family tradition.

In fact, as the Burns film noted, Haggard was born in the Golden State—in sunny California. But according to the leading authority on his life, he wasn't born in the California of the Mamas and Papas' later dreamin':
Haggard was born in Oildale, California, during the Great Depression. His childhood was troubled after the death of his father, and he was incarcerated several times in his youth. After being released from San Quentin State Prison in 1960, he managed to turn his life around and launch a successful country music career, gaining popularity with his songs about the working class that occasionally contained themes contrary to the prevailing anti-Vietnam War sentiment of much popular music of the time. Between the 1960s and the 1980s, he had 38 number-one hits on the US country charts, several of which also made the Billboard all-genre singles chart. Haggard continued to release successful albums into the 2000s.

He received many honors and awards for his music, including a Kennedy Center Honor (2010), a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2006), a BMI Icon Award (2006), and induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (1977), Country Music Hall of Fame (1994) and Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame (1997). He died on April 6, 2016—his 79th birthday—at his ranch in Shasta County, California, having recently suffered from double pneumonia.

Haggard's last recording, a song called "Kern River Blues," described his departure from Bakersfield in the late 1970s and his displeasure with politicians. The song was recorded February 9, 2016, and features his son Ben on guitar. This record was released on May 12, 2016.
For the record, we lived in California ourselves, during junior high and high school. That said, we didn't live there during the Great Depression, and we'd never heard of Oildale, let alone imagined that someone had once been born in a place with such a name.

Don't get us wrong! There's nothing wrong with modern-day Oildale, or with the roughly 35,000 people who live there, roughly four miles from downtown Bakersfield in the sunny San Joaquin Valley. That said, Haggard's experience there as a child may have been a bit more hardscrabble than our own California experiences, almost three decades later.

In the literal sense, Haggard wasn't an Okie, whether from Muskogee or anywhere else. That said, the Burns film described the family background which made Haggard, a native-born Californian, feel like he actually was an Okie on a tribal and cultural basis.

As it turns out, Haggard's parents had migrated to the Golden State in conditions which were less than ideal. The leading authority describes the history as shown below. In the Burns film, Haggard expresses a bit more bitterness about these matters during a lengthy interview taped before his death:
Haggard's parents were Flossie Mae Haggard (née Harp) and James Francis Haggard, and both were of Scottish descent. The family moved to California from their home in Checotah, Oklahoma, during the Great Depression, after their barn burned in 1934.

They settled with their two elder children, Lowell and Lillian, in an apartment in Bakersfield, while James started working for the Santa Fe Railroad. A woman who owned a boxcar placed in Oildale, a nearby town, asked Haggard's father about the possibility of converting it into a house. He remodeled the boxcar, and soon after moved in, also purchasing the lot, where Merle Ronald Haggard was born on April 6, 1937...

His father died of a brain hemorrhage in 1945, an event that deeply affected Haggard during his childhood and the rest of his life...
Merle Haggard wasn't Boxcar Willie. That said, he was apparently born in a boxcar, in a city named Oildale, where his family had been forced to move after their barn and/or farmhouse burned down during the Dust Bowl years.

During the interview on Country Music, Haggard described insulting remarks by the boxcar's owner, in which the Haggard family were derisively described as "Okies." He recounted his father's sardonic reply as a family tradition was born.

The Burns film described the experiences of several country music stars who had to head to California during the Dust Bowl years, eventually finding themselves stereotyped as Okies or Arkies as part of the deal. Haggard seemed to say that he had identified culturally as an Okie on the basis of these experiences, and on the basis of his reverence for his late father's struggles and views.

Dust Bowl derisions to the side, Haggard was one of many stars in the Burns film who grew up during very hard times. Burns presented one striking story after another, none more so than that of Dolly Parton, who was born in a one-room cabin lacking electricity and indoor plumbing in Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains in 1946. the fourth of twelve children;

Who wrote her first song at the age of 5, Little Tiny Tasseltop, a song about the doll her father had fashioned for her from a corn cob;

Who was earning $20 per week on Knoxville TV by the age of 10, and was thereby able to buy her family's first TV set;

and who left by bus for Nashville in 1964, one day after becoming the first person in her family to graduate from high school.

"I had a dream," the still astonishing Parton is shown saying in an interview, "and I believed I had a talent." By the time she was 21, she was a significant rising star in the country music business.

Especially during its early years and its middle age, the annals of country music are full of stories of material deprivation. There are stories of rural and urban Southern poverty, and of Dust Bowl deprivation.

As late as 1964, in suburban San Francisco, we puzzled over the cover photo on our (Folkways) "Watson Family" album. There are also stories like Kathy Mattea's—stories of families in which fathers and grandfathers "earned a poor man's dollar" (Loretta Lynn) working with coal.

Back to Haggard! Along the way, later in life, he seems to have given every possible explanation for how and why he came to write his famous culture-war song. That included the claim that he and his band had originally written Okie from Muskogee as a joke.

The Burns film shows him offering a somewhat arcane explanation for what the song had been meant to convey. In 2010, he apparently explained it like this:
HAGGARD (2010): It was the photograph that I took of the way things looked through the eyes of a fool. I was just as dumb as a rock at about that time, and most of America was under the same assumptions I was...I sing the song now with a different attitude onstage. If you use that song now, it’s a really good snapshot of how dumb we were in the past. They had me fooled, too. I’ve become educated. I think one of the bigger mistakes politicians do is to get embarrassed when somebody catches them changing their opinion. God, what if they learned the truth since they expressed themselves in the past? I’ve learned the truth since I wrote that song. I play it now with a different projection. It’s a different song now. I’m different now. I still believed in America then. I don’t know that I do now.
For the record, we like people who talk about dumb, since it's largely the way of the world.

Whatever the truth about Okie from Muskogee may be, it defined and fueled a culture war which has never really ended. The two tribes who stood on opposite sides of that song now stand on opposite sides of impeachment, with one group being embarrassingly propagandized on CNN and MSNBC, and the other group being crazily propagandized on the bulk of the Fox News Channel.

Haggard is remembered for culture war, but he also wrote a lot of songs with a more thoughtful flavor. Indeed, a few months before the appearance of Okie from Muskogee, Rolling Stone was praising him in an intriguing way:
WICKHAM (3/1/69): Though his records have never leaked over into pop radio. Merle Haggard has emerged as one of the most interesting voices in modern country...

Perhaps the reason he has enjoyed so little pop success is that he has seldom—if ever—been exposed to a culturally integrated audience (though he has been invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival this year).

More likely is the fact that Merle Haggard is pure country—a small, tough, jowly man from Bakersfield
who is married to his sometime singing partner. Bonnie Owens...whose sound, bearing traces of his famous brother-in-law [Buck Owens], falls somewhere between Lefty Frizzell and early Johnny Cash and who has addressed himself exclusively to Nixon’s “silent majority,” the suburban working class.

His songs romanticize the hardships and tragedies of America’s transient proletarian
and his success is resultant of his inherent ability to relate to his audience a commonplace experience with precisely the right emotional pitch.
"Haggard looks the part and sounds the part because he is the part. He's great," Wickham wrote.

Wickham said Haggard was great. That said, Haggard had never been exposed to "a culturally integrated audience." As our dueling troupes of cable clowns look ahead to the joys of impeachment, we're still involved in the same lack of integration today, with major corporate cable entities striving to keep us that way.

Haggard sometimes sang about being looked down on. "Another class of people put us somewhere just below/One more reason for my mama's hungry eyes." So he sang on the title song of the album Wickham was reviewing.

Do such attitudes persist even today as we're encouraged to thrill to impeachment? We'll start tomorrow with some pickin' and choosin' by country star Kevin Drum.

Tomorrow: Tex Montana; Massena, New York; late summer 1970

Postponed till Friday: To his substantial credit, Bernie Sanders knows coal

23 comments:

  1. ""If you don't love it, leave it!" Donald J. Trump returned to this unhelpful framework not too long ago."

    Dear Bob, first of all, far's I can tell, this is not a quote of Donald J. Trump. Putting it into quotation marks seems a bit... eh... dishonest, I'm afraid.

    And second, yes, "YOU can go back home or move if you don’t like America" does sound a bit strong, but hey, look at it in context: everyone is sick and tired of you zombies trying, non-stop, to shove your zombie bullshit down everybody's throat.

    So, try to be more tolerant, dear Bob, y'know, as you zombies proclaim yourself to be... Okay?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nice try, but you forgot to call liberals "snowflakes".

      Delete
    2. Mao, you seem to be little more than a parrot. Your prejudice in reading Bob's musings has affected your ability to comprehend what he is saying. Your regular comments are typically inane and/or stupid, contributing little to a genuine, interesting dialogue that might elicit some insight or thought.

      Delete
    3. The quoted text comes from the song; Trump returned to this framework. So, the quote is not attributed to Trump. Fairly easy to grasp...for someone who is not a trumpbot.

      Delete
    4. I'm sure this phrase comes from plenty of places. And, "framework" or not, it's presented as if Trump said it.

      Not a big deal, obviously. If it pleases you, consider me successfully nitpicked.

      Delete
    5. That "love it or leave it" phrase existed before Merle Haggard's song. It is a right wing saying that goes back to Walter Winchell, who used it on his show in defense of McCarthyism.

      Delete
    6. Hello everyone i Am williams pater and i am from USA i am here to give my testimony about an herbal doctor called Dr,olu I was heartbroken because i had very small penis,not nice to satisfy a woman, i have been in so many relationship, but cut off because of my situation, i have used so many product which doctors prescribe for me, but could not offer me the help i searched for. i saw some few comments on the internet about this specialist called Dr,OLU and decided to email him on his email i saw on the internet,(drolusolutionhome@gmail.com ) so I decided to give his herbal product a try. i emailed him and he got back to me, he gave me some comforting words with his herbal product for Penis Enlargement, Within three weeks of me use it, i began to feel the enlargement, " and now it just 4 weeks of using his products my penis is about 8 inches longer, and i had to settle thing out with my ex girlfriend , i was surprised when she said that she is satisfied with my performance in bed and i now have a large penis.thanks to DR OLU for is herbal product. you can also reach him with emsil  drolusolutionhome@gmail.com though is..number WHATASPP him today on this number [ +2348140654426 ]   




























      Hello everyone i Am williams pater and i am from USA i am here to give my testimony about an herbal doctor called Dr,olu I was heartbroken because i had very small penis,not nice to satisfy a woman, i have been in so many relationship, but cut off because of my situation, i have used so many product which doctors prescribe for me, but could not offer me the help i searched for. i saw some few comments on the internet about this specialist called Dr,OLU and decided to email him on his email i saw on the internet,(drolusolutionhome@gmail.com ) so I decided to give his herbal product a try. i emailed him and he got back to me, he gave me some comforting words with his herbal product for Penis Enlargement, Within three weeks of me use it, i began to feel the enlargement, " and now it just 4 weeks of using his products my penis is about 8 inches longer, and i had to settle thing out with my ex girlfriend , i was surprised when she said that she is satisfied with my performance in bed and i now have a large penis.thanks to DR OLU for is herbal product. you can also reach him with emsil  drolusolutionhome@gmail.com though is..number WHATASPP him today on this number [ +2348140654426 ]   

























      Delete
  2. Just the other day, Somerby was mocking the Times for covering the 25th anniversary of “Friends”, and other such trivial nonsense.

    And now, entire posts from him where he rapturously discusses the lives and careers of big money-making country music artists.

    To each his own, as they say.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The country music in Ken Burn's documentary speaks to America's longtime economic and social ills, while "Friends" speaks to nothing of importance.

      Delete
    2. Among unmarried 20-somethings working in New York (or any other large city) making and forming relationships and getting married are of key importance. Why denigrate the concerns of anyone just because you don't share them (Somerby, not hardindr).

      Delete
    3. @hardindr
      Of course. So would a documentary about blues or R&B, or even rap, or the traditional folk music that country music was based on but betrayed in the process of becoming a multi-billion dollar money generating machine.

      You proclaim the idea that Friends speaks to nothing. That is YOUR opinion. Some said Seinfeld spoke to nothing. Others saw it as a commentary on contemporary human foibles.

      I mean, I like Dolly Parton and all, but most people have dreams, like her young self. So what? Most people don’t grow up to be one of the top selling artists in music. Some people see hardship and deprivation and do other things than become commercial singers. And some become singers who don’t sing paeans to reactionary sentiment, like Haggard, a sentiment that country music was unfortunately receptive to. It was a business, remember?

      Can we find equal inspiration in the journey of four lower class lads from Liverpool growing up to be the top band of all time? Sure.

      Anyway, to each his own, as I said. I don’t see country music as particularly or specifically reflective of anything more than any other popular music genre reflects. It is no more or less authentic than any other genre.

      Delete
    4. Seinfeld was literally a "show about nothing..."

      Delete
    5. @hardindr
      Sure. That’s how Seinfeld himself described it. But it was filled with funny insights into human nature, particularly in contemporary urban society. You can discount such shows like Seinfeld or Friends, but their popularity suggests an interesting anthropological case study. People derive pleasure or inspiration from every possible thing. The things that people find worthwhile personally for themselves, such as Friends or Dolly Parton, will vary. Some people hate country music; others hate rap. That is no reason to pit one genre against another.

      I just see no reason to value big-business country music over big-business TV shows in an objective sense. It’s kind of narcissistic to think your opinion of what popular cultural trend is important is the CORRECT opinion.

      Delete
    6. There is nothing political or meaningful about the shows "Friends" or "Seinfeld." They are fine as entertainment, as far as it goes. However, it is strange that the NY Times would spend so much time and ink on a show that was just a show, with no deeper meaning.

      It is hard to listen to country music (among many other kinds of popular music), and miss the social and economic commentary, something covered in Ken Burns' documentary.

      Delete
    7. “Social and economic commentary”

      Please, no.

      Unless it’s this:

      https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=SUYI7kIR0S4

      Delete
    8. Or this:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=raV4FBqw6q4

      Leroy

      Delete
    9. indeed, Leroy. As prefaced by this oldie with a great beat and a commonsensical rhythm to dance to.

      https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=_rFNlkfAxnY

      Delete
  3. "Dust Bowl derisions to the side, Haggard was one of many stars in the Burns film who grew up during very hard times. "

    The 1930s were very hard times for most of the nation. Those who experienced hard times on the left became union organizers, marched and fought for the safety net. They listened to songs by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, songs that came from the same folk traditions as country music.

    At bottom, the difference between red and blue isn't about hard times or urban/rural traditions. It is about whether you believe in change or want to preserve what you have. It is easy to understand why folks such as Merle Haggard might fear and resent change when it resulted in deprivation. But other people living in hard times sought change in order to improve their lives. The boxcar mentioned by Somerby was an improvement compared to having no home. The left seeks change in order to help and improve people's lives.

    The culture war is not synonymous with the economic war. Change in traditions did come from the left but it was represented by Easy Rider, hippies, and the counterculture, not by unions and political change or even civil rights. In the 60s there was a divide between political activists and hippies (who were mostly middle class young people who were rejecting the prosperity and above-all conformity of the 50s). Haggard's songs were about culture not economics, but Somerby conflates the two.

    Today's political divide is mostly about culture (gay rights, increasing rejection of religion, women's autonomy), and insufficiently about economics. Trump rallies are about rejecting Hillary and beating up dirty hippies, not increasing wages or building security from health worries or the gig economy.

    Somerby focuses on Haggard being called an Okie (which he was) and not on his diatribe against LSD, extolling liquor, and rejecting sexual freedom. In today's red states, there is a flight of talented young people to urban areas, an acceptance and embrace of social change in red cities, and a rejection of church. Those left behind are right to be upset, but the divide is not red versus blue, it is along lines of education, youth, and embrace of change versus clinging to rigid social control.

    For example, Utah is a red state but the Mormon church rejected Trump and it became a center of anti-Trump activism among conservatives. Salt Lake City is home to a large proportion of Democrats, only about half-Mormon, and is the center for gay rights, art, music, technical innovation, and an acceptance of both coffee drinking and wine/beer brew houses and a restaurant scene. It remain culturally child friendly and holds on to family values while accepting change. I haven't lived in Texas but I suspect it is going the same way, as are several other previously solid red states. Trump is losing this battle for conservatives by displaying the antithesis of the values that represent the best of Haggard's affirmations.

    Why is Somerby touting Haggard's song lyrics? Does he think liberals don't know what concerns red America? Of course we do. But liberals are not going to sell out their own strongly held beliefs in order to return to a time that never existed. Meanwhile, liberals want to see economic change that will help everyone, red and blue, by avoiding future dust bowl migrations and making sure even Okies have free school lunches and a roof over their heads. It is admirable that Haggard escaped prison recidivism, but what about those he left behind?

    ReplyDelete
  4. "That said, Haggard had never been exposed to "a culturally integrated audience." As our dueling troupes of cable clowns look ahead to the joys of impeachment, we're still involved in the same lack of integration today, with major corporate cable entities striving to keep us that way."

    This is an interesting remark. I haven't seen any crowd at a Warren event booing and running out those who disagree with the speakers. But that is the main entertainment at Trump events, as Trump says "get rid of him" and watches in amusement while his goons toss out anyone expressing disagreement at his rallies. Is this an example of the "inclusion" Somerby wants to see?

    Crowds at concerts are self-selected. They buy their own tickets. Why would anyone who is liberal want to go hear songs deriding them? But do people on the left write and sing songs about those awful Okies and their dirty shoes? I don't think so. Haggard says he grew out of his early attitudes. Presumably he did so because he had life experiences that changed his views. As long as Trump supporters self-segregate into rural communities that have no interest in experiencing anything different, how will they have the opportunity to grow and change?

    Somerby is berating the people who embrace difference, suggesting that if we just embraced the closed-minded rigidity of the right, everything would be better. How? It won't make the right embrace us back. It will just make us their bitches, while they continue to restrict and reject the things we care about.

    Those nice red-state people are the ones who shout at innocent shoppers at Walmart for speaking Spanish. Why would anyone want to hang around with them, at a concert or anywhere else?

    ReplyDelete
  5. I don't see liberals mocking people who are poor. I think it is middle and upper class Republicans who are concerned with social and economic status, because they are most fearful of losing their own place. Liberal snobbishness centers on other things, such as whether you recycle or drive an electric car.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Country music makes my teeth hurt.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Was there a point to this post?

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hello everyone out there, help me Thank Dr UGO! My name is MRS LINDA from Netherlands. I am here to give testimony on how I got my ex husband back, my husband left me for no reason 6 Months. He moved in with another woman, I felt like killing myself, my life became very bitter and sorrowful. Then 1 day, a friend of mine told me about a great spell caster that is very good and she said that he told her all about her life history and the problem she is facing, I didn't believe it because I've worked with so many of them and it didn't work. She begged me further so I decided to try this great spell caster called Great Dr UGO. I still didn't believe, but inside me I wanted to give a try and as God will have it, I used the spell solution he gave me and the next day I received a call from my darling husband Romero last month. He apologized and came back to me. I'm very happy now with my family it worked for me and I believe it will work for you too just give him a try and follow up this is a clear truth from a testifier. Thank you Dr UGO once again, if you want to reach him via email:(dr.ugo.temple@gmail.com) 

    ReplyDelete