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 MuskogeeWe'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:
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.
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.
I hear people talkin' bad"If you don't love it, leave it!" Donald J. Trump returned to this unhelpful framework not too long ago.
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.
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.
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.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.
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.
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.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.
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...
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..."Haggard looks the part and sounds the part because he is the part. He's great," Wickham wrote.
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.
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