Merle Haggard's Greatest Political Songs
The Late and Great Merle Haggard
The late, great Merle Haggard lived and died from April 6, 1937 to April 6, 2016. Yep, that's right, he died on his birthday. There's little doubt that even among the persons who are not fans of classic country music, Haggard is recognized as one of the greatest figures in country music history.
Merle Haggard has a long list of accolades for his large body of work. Grammy Lifetime Achievement Awards, a Kennedy Center Honor, BMI Icon Award, induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame—this is but a taste of Haggard's legacy.
Haggard had thirty eight number one country music hits. Only two persons have ever topped Merle in this, and they are George Straight, and Conway Twitty. For his efforts over many decades, Haggard had amassed a fortune in excess of forty million dollars.
Merle Haggard, Primed for Political Music
Country music is full of stereotypes. Some of these are well earned. You hear enough songs about pickup trucks, drinking whiskey, and losing your girlfriend, you get a bit jaded to it all. There are more, of course, songs about Mama, trains, and getting out of prison are common as well.
Merle Haggard absolutely did those types of songs. Mama Tried is easily one of his best songs. Haggard had famously went to prison at a young age. He didn't go to just any prison, but to the infamous San Quentin, and so when he emerged, he had some massive street credentials.
No one needs an excuse to do political music, or political country music, and going to prison, even famous prisons, doesn't necessarily cause one to want to make political statements in song. So what is it about Haggard? Well, Merle had been born into a highly politicized people.
What am I talking about? Merle Haggard was born an Okie. This does not mean he was born in Oklahoma. In the case of Merle Haggard, he was born in Bakersfield, California. Okies were the people escaping the great Dust Bowl, and their escape was to California, where they were promptly abused. The term is, in fact, slang.
In public school and in junior college, the great work of one of America's finest novelists, John Steinbeck, were often emphasized. The Grapes of Wrath was easily one of my favorite novels, and for all intents and practical purposes, Merle may as well have been a son of the Joad family.
Okies had already been represented heavily with political folk music by Woody Guthrie, and also by his son Arlo. Merle Haggard was a different person entirely, and though Merle was certainly not a hippie, he did have some hippie inclinations, and had had enough of his own very personal demons to fight so that his political perspective was something very unique to not just country music, but to all American music. Lets have a look!
We were in a wonderful time in America, and music was in a wonderful place. America was at its peak, and what the hell did these kids have to complain about? These soldiers were giving up their freedom and lives to make sure others could stay free. I wrote the song to support those soldiers.
Okie from Muskogee
In 1969 Merle Haggard had already had some very good success as a country and western singer. He'd already had some hit songs about being a fugitive, and a prisoner, and at this point in his career, everyone already knew who he was. He was a man with a record. Merle had no reason to hide his opinions, as he was a known convict.
Okie from Muskogee, however, was and is a complicated song. The lyrics of the song are simple. The music of the song is also simple, so how is this complicated? Oh brother, it is. It was complicated then, and it is complicated now. From the opening lyric, this song is highly political.
There is a great divide here. Haggard was at once a very patriotic man from a very traditional background, and he honored those things, but part of patriotism in the United States is recognizing the right people have to protest, and to live a completely different sort of life from what they were born into.
Okie from Muskogee is at once a redneck anthem, and a spoof. It is both of those things because, though Merle is very much the redneck, he's also a bit of a hippie. No his appearance is not that of the hippie, and his lifestyle is not entirely that of the hippie, but in fact, in some ways his lifestyle is much more hippie than redneck.
On the Bill Maher show, not long before his passing, Maher makes a comment to Merle about the opening line of the song, and how Muskogee doesn't sound like a place he'd want to be. Haggard responds, grinning as usual, by saying how he and friend Willie Nelson are very seldom ever in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
The early live performances of Okie from Muskogee are full of Haggard trying to suppress his grins. This is especially funny because of the adoration folks in the audience may have for the person they want Merle Haggard to be, and this is in opposition of the person Merle Haggard actually was.
They love our milk and honey
But they preach about some other way of livin'
But when they're runnin' down our country, man
They're walkin' on the fightin' side of me
Fightin Side of Me
Okie from Muskogee was clearly a hit. Country music had always been apolitical. It was folk music, and rock music where political ideas were expressed. Haggard was breaking new ground, and the people at Capital Records wanted another redneck rant from Haggard, and it had to express the conservative political view. What came was Fightin' Side of Me.
That the lyrics often seemed tongue in cheek wasn't a problem. The idea was the extremely conservative redneck sort wouldn't even be able to pick up on any of this chicanery. In terms of business, there was a huge and wide open market just then for music which was actually patriotic in nature, and not just another flowers in your hair thing.
You get more of Merle Haggard's barely suppressed grins in the early live performances. You wonder what the man's political thinking truly is, and where and when he is serious. Haggard was a very non-partisan man, and this song was released against his protest. He hadn't liked the song or the idea of it, instead he'd wanted to make a song about interracial relationships.
My own opinion here is not unique.Haggard does what the greatest artists sometimes do, he ditches his own self to become a narrator who is not himself, but a stereotypical entity. He may portray someone you may know, or even live next door to.
In Fightin' Side of Me, Haggard's character supposes that only wimps or sissies could possibly oppose America's wars. This exact idea appeals very much to a large portion of Haggard's fans, but Merle's grins let the viewer know he in no way endorses such an idea, and who could possibly think such a thing true, as wars are forever a rich man's trick.
Been working everyday since I was twenty
Haven't got a thing to show
For anything I've done
There's folks who never work and they've got plenty
Think it's time some guys like me had some fun
Fast forward to 1982, and Merle Haggard is writing songs which are as much about 2019 as they were about the time in which the song was created. The wise man knows now the American political divide isn't between left or right, it isn't between rich and poor, but it is in fact between the people living in gigantic cities and the rest of us.
The US left wing party wants to abolish the Electoral College, and completely disenfranchise smaller states, and rural peoples from the democratic process. The United States, of course, was founded as a republic, and not a democracy. Pure democracies are basically mob rule, and are represented in the world of logical fallacies by Argumentum ad Populum.
A world where fifty one percent can just stomp all over the lives of the forty nine percent sounds a lot like hell. Living in a big city is something I've done on multiple occasions, and it was always a hellish thing to me. Merle Haggard completely agreed with me on this. Give me the coyotes howling by the hundreds at night, and that is where I want to be.
Big City is probably my favorite Haggard tune, and this is because when I was attempting to first learn to play guitar, my grandfather would sing this song, and I'd try to keep up with his strumming pattern and chord changes. The song is about more than just the desire to escape the gigantic metropolis.
The inspiration for Big City was from Haggard's bus driver. Merle Haggard was truly from poverty, and he never once forgot about the working man, especially when they worked for him. Haggard's bus driver had remarked, when asked how he was doing, that he was tired of this dirty city they were in. Haggard asked the driver where he'd rather be, and he replied, "somewhere in the middle of Montana."
Merle Haggard went from this conversation immediately to get something to write on. The song was later recorded in one take, with no rehearsals to speak of. Big City is also the name of a Haggard album, and the album's theme is escape from urban life.
I wish coke was still cola
And a joint was a bad place to be
It was back before Nixon lied to us all on T.V
Before microwave ovens when a girl could still cook, and still would
Is the best of the free life behind us now
Are the good times really over for good?
Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver)
Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver) is one of the most politically charged songs in not just the history of country music, but all American music. Line after line of this song is politically charged.
The general theme is a desire to return to a simpler time. Holy Mother of Mercy though, Haggard rips America a new one. No one is safe, men are lambasted, women are chastised, Elvis, the Beatles, Richard Nixon, and American auto manufacturers are all left running for cover.
But things implied are even possibly more important. What does it mean to wish a buck was still silver? Well, it means one wishes money was actually of value. Haggard rips the horrible Richard Nixon for lying to everyone on television, but there is more going on here, for Nixon was also the villain who ended the gold standard for US currency.
The reason a buck isn't backed up by precious metals is entirely due to the evils of Richard Nixon, and this particular evil isn't even one of the ones he's remembered for often, but Merle Haggard knew.
Richard Nixon had long been out of office, and repeatedly shamed by 1982. You know who is really thrown in front of the bus here? General Motors and Ford Motor Corporation are in the spotlight. In the early 80s American auto manufacturers were making cars which couldn't compete with Japanese makes, and so, this was a source of absolute shame to Haggard, and to millions of other Americans.
Country music stars simply DID NOT go up against the American giants of manufacturing, like General Motors and Ford, but Merle Haggard had been to the roughest of prisons. Haggard had seen far worse than anyone in US manufacturing could throw his way. He stood up and he spoke out on behalf of the American people, like a good man should.
The poets tell how Pancho fell
Lefty's livin' in a cheap hotel
The desert's quiet and Cleveland's cold
So the story ends we're told
Pancho needs your prayers it's true,
But save a few for Lefty too
He just did what he had to do
Now he's growing old
Pancho and Lefty (Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson)
Pancho and Lefty is a tragic tale, but it wasn't written by Merle Haggard, or Willie Nelson. Pancho and Lefty is a song by Townes Van Zandt, and Townes was one of the greatest songwriters to have ever lived, and was himself, and extremely tragic figure.
The astute viewer of the music video spots Townes Van Zandt, as he's a prominent character in the music video for the song covered by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. Western Writers of America chose this song as the seventeenth greatest Western song of all time.
This song is less political than it is a fantastic showing of the magnificent lyrical genius of Townes Van Zandt, and the great friendship between equally legendary artists, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson.
Townes had originally said the song was not about Pancho Villa, but he also said something to the effect that the song came through him, meaning it wasn't really by him. Does this make sense? It's a spiritual sort of idea. However, as time went on, Townes agreed the song was about Pancho Villa.
Pancho Villa was a political figure, and so, songs about Pancho Villa must therefore be political in nature. Pancho Villa had been a Mexican revolutionary general who advocated for the poor, and for land reform. These are the same exact themes the music of both Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard often espouse.
Additionally there are the sorrows of growing old, and betrayal addressed. Whether one is an outlaw or any sort of political figure, or not becomes irrelevant. We all wind up dealing with the sorrow of betrayal, and if we're lucky, of growing old.
Conclusion, Farewell, and Kern River Blues
So Merle Haggard is an inspiration to us all today. He inspires us to speak up and condemn things we see as against our people, but that is not hardly all, for Haggard also inspires us to take things lightly, to sometimes go tongue in cheek, and to be able to laugh at ourselves. What are Okie from Muskogee, and Fighin' Side of Me, if not examples of someone making fun of a part of himself?
Haggard also instructs us to be fearlessly outspoken in the face of gigantic entities who oppress us, like Ford and General Motors selling the public substandard products, as they both did in the 1980s. is something I own in physical and digital forms, and enjoy often, and were you to take a further interests in this music, then you couldn't go wrong there. Merle Haggard's Greatest Hits
Thanks very much for reading, and I'll leave you with what Haggard left us all with, and it is absolutely a song where he's saying fare thee well, and though he does that, time and again, he still takes the time to rip politicians. Merle knew what was up.
© 2019 Wesman Todd Shaw