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Merle Haggard's Greatest Political Songs

Updated on September 17, 2019
Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw started playing the guitar when he was 12 years old. He loves nothing more than to pick one up and pluck some strings.

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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

Big City

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. Merle Haggard's Greatest Hits 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.

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

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    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile imageAUTHOR

      Wesman Todd Shaw 

      6 weeks ago from Kaufman, Texas

      That's awfully kind of you. Seems as often as not whoever I'm talking to doesn't understand what I'm talking about, or has no interest in whatever it may be.

      Then the people who understand exactly what I'm raving about often disagree with my perspective, or what I think was right or wrong.

      ...and it's rare I'm ever actually talking to anyone at all without the benefit of a computer Oh I step outside and howl like the coyotes sometimes. They think I'm just a poser.

    • savvydating profile image

      Yves 

      6 weeks ago

      I'll say one thing. No one can ever accuse you of being a boring conversationalist. Interesting observations, my young friend.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile imageAUTHOR

      Wesman Todd Shaw 

      6 weeks ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Thanks Yves. I thought it was a good article. I can think of several I thought of as lots less good, which were moved to the music website. So when I got their form letter, with those misleading ideas (like there is an editing que, and they're actually planning to edit, which they are definitely NOT going to do, when you receive the standard form letter of nope) - I was a little bit pissed.

      Oh, of course Merle was a marijuana smoker. Maybe he wasn't at that time. I'd bet he tried LSD, at some point. Eh well, maybe he did.

      Bad hygiene? That's worse than having the awful personality one usually has when they also have bad hygiene.

      Though I was not born until 1974, I can well imagine being disgusted by these hippies. The slogans and such which come with them are often repulsive. They're the parents or grandparents of today's antifas. Stupid clothing. Stupid ideas, and ...well, some of the hippies made great music. Antifas failed to acquire one non repulsive attribute.

      Anyway, one need not support little wars. Vietnam was of no consequence to us. What it was was a forum for the testing of brand new military industrial complex wares. And the congress and various Presidents just kept stringing the stupid thing along, year after year.

      Being against communism is absolutely good. Having a never ending war in a remote and still a backwater today nation? Not so good. And what do the hippies do? It's crazy to imagine, but I've had so many V vets tell me about this, and my parents are that same age - the hippies somehow blamed actual US soldiers for any claimed sorts of atrocities the mass media accidentally alluded to ten thousand times, daily.

      I tend to believe persons who make up left wing extremists ideological groups are just less intelligent persons.

      Concerning Nixon, he didn't come from a family as poor as Merle's family, but Richard grew up poor, and Richard worked his complete tail off. Think about it, he gets over to the east coast, and he sees all these guys born into daddy's money, whove probably never had to keep the sort of schedule Richard had had to keep, just to get to the social circles of those super rich persons. And by get to their social circles, I mean going to a fancy Ivy league uni.

      You're not likely to be hanging out with the Rockefellers when you're from somewhere in Southern California, and your dad owns a tiny grocery store. So I can admire Richard Nixon for having a whole lot of something I never seem to have much of - burning ambition. Consuming drive.

      I imagine Nixon saw some of himself in Haggard. Or maybe more likely, he saw Merle as being the sort of person he could have wound up being, had he not been consumed with doing what he felt was the right thing to do.

      I'm not able to process all the billions of factors involved with how or why it is better to have dollars backed by precious metals vs fiat funny money. It's perfectly obvious the central bank just be able to make decisions without the pesky person in the White House having authority over them.

      I imagine Trump has more business sense in either of his pinky toes than any of all the recent Presidents combined. And I don't see a good reason to have any faith at all in 'The Beast from Jekyl Island.'

      So I absolutely wish a buck was still silver. I know that means they can only print off so many bucks. While The Federal Reserve, not being federal, and there being no reserves - is sketchy at best, it was Nixon who took the US off the gold standard. So the first line of the song would have been a refernce to Nixon too, I think.

    • savvydating profile image

      Yves 

      6 weeks ago

      A most interesting piece on Merle Haggard, one of the classic country greats. You write exceptionally well and I enjoyed your most thoughtful article.

      I discovered, also, that while some of Haggard's songs were political, he did state in a 1990 interview that there were times he wished he hadn't written Okie from Muskogee. He said, "I was indelibly stamped with this political image." He regretted that he was not seen as more of an artist and there were times when he refused to play the song. In another interview, he admitted to having disdain for hippies because they didn't care about their hygiene. So while he was rebellious, I personally do not think he identified with the hippie culture.

      To be sure, he called-out Nixon in a non-flattering way in "Are the Good Times Really Over." Interestingly, at least to me, he had been invited to perform at the White House, which he did, but that was before things went bad. At any rate, Nixon had been a fan of Haggard. One of my favorite books is "Beyond Peace" written by Nixon. A great book. But I digress. Forgive me?

      I believe Merle Haggard had a unique sound. I believe he was a reflective, intelligent artist. It is lovely to know you have a great appreciation for the classics, but I am not surprised in the least. You're too smart not to... ;)

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile imageAUTHOR

      Wesman Todd Shaw 

      8 weeks ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Hi Vivian. I ONLY like old country music. That stuff they call country music these days sounds like hell to me.

      Haggard was pretty different in that he was BOLDLY doing political music. Sometimes he was serious, other times he wasn't so serious, but that he would literally take on giants like General Motors and Ford Motor Company in songs? Nobody had done that in country music before.

    • Noelle7 profile image

      Vivian Coblentz 

      8 weeks ago

      Wesman,

      I remember hearing some of his music when I was a young child, but I completely detest most country music--especially the old stuff. Just because I hate it doesn't mean I can't appreciate the talent Haggard had in that genre. Tying this article to politics was a smart move to get people like me to read for the political commentary, if not for the country music part!

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile imageAUTHOR

      Wesman Todd Shaw 

      8 weeks ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Thanks very much, Pam. I would LOVE to see that show myself!

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      8 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      This is such an interesting, well-written article about Merle Haggard. I like country music, especially old country music and I have a lot of respect for Merle Haggard. I like his songs.

      I just watched a show about the beginning of country music on PBS. I guess it is a new series, but very interesting. Thank for this very interesting article,

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