Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Merle Haggard: Okie From Muskogee

SONG Okie From Muskogee

SONGWRITER Merle Haggard

COMPOSED BY Merle Haggard, Roy Edward Burris

PERFORMER Merle Haggard

APPEARS ON Okie From Muskogee (1969), The Best Of Merle Haggard (1972), The Lonesome Fugitive: The Merle Haggard Anthology (1963-1977) (1995), Down Every Road (1996), many others.

NOTE "Okie From Muskogee" is an essential part of the Haggard canon. Any anthology without it is by definition incomplete and should be avoided.

"Okie From Muskogee" hit the airwaves in September 1969 as a sort reverse protest song in which hard working middle=class Americans respectful of traditional values expressed resentment toward the hedonistic, idle lifestyles of "the hippies out in San Francisco." Or was it? Haggard has long maintained that the song is a joke:
It started out as a joke. We wrote to be satirical originally. But then people latched onto it, and it really turned into this song that looked into the mindset of people so opposite of who and where we were. My dad's people. He's from Muskogee, you know?
It's hard to believe that 1969 was forty years ago, as the echoes of the 1968 presidential campaign and the divisions of the Vietnam War and the great social movements of the time resound today. Woodstock was already in the rearview mirror, though, and the country had yet to absorb the slayings of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.

Richard Nixon, in the first year of his presidency, had been elected by one of the narrowest margins ever (0.7 %) and indeed was nearly undone by the candidacy of George Wallace to his right. Wallace won 13.5% of the popular and carried five states from the Deep South, all of which would otherwise likely have gone to Nixon. The former vice president ran a campaign that appealed to white resentment and that successfully blamed liberalism for a breakdown in law and order. Nixon also found great resonance by arguing to what he called "The Silent Majority" that liberals who had turned against the Vietnam War had also turned against their own country. It was the blueprint of all successful Republican presidential campaigns since.

Indeed, popular bumper stickers at the time declared "America: Love It Or Leave It" and "My Country, Right Or Wrong." The subtext was clear: Dissent amounted to an unpatriotic and even seditious sentiment. If one pointed out that the country was wrong about something, one forfeited the right to call it your country. The correct way to express one's appreciation of the right to dissent was to shut up -- in other, not to dissent at all. Conservative supporters of the Iraq war followed exactly this line of rhetoric in their attempts to stifle and isolate liberal opposition to the war.

Such was the political and social context of "Okie From Muskogee." Whatever Haggard's intent, few people at the time heard it as a satire. "Okie" did not chart as the #1 country single for four weeks by flagrantly parodying its audience at a time of great social change. Conservatives loved the song because it stuck up for them, arguably the first topical song to do so. They had grievances, too, and finally someone sang sympathetically about them instead of attacking them or mocking them. Liberals, taking the song as literally as conservatives, laughed outright at the song's supposed lack of sophistication and its (so they thought) laughable appeal to ignorant rubes. In this respect, "Okie From Muskogee" reinforced the stereotypes that each side had of the other and reflected the divide between the two camps.

The reality was somewhat more complex. Conservatives mistakenly conflated hippies and liberals: The former tended to be apolitical -- conservative, even, in the sense that they wanted government to leave them alone. Not only that, there were plenty of hard working liberals who did not take "trips on LSD," let their hair "grow long and shaggy," or "make a party out of lovin." (My crew cut father, for example.) Indeed, as became apparent in the Seventies, drug use, long hair, and promiscuity new no political bounds. Because of the song's appeal to conservatives and because of a certain snobbish humorlessness, liberals ridiculed "Okie," ignored the unsurprising resentments it tapped, and missed what now appears like obvious satire.

In the end, it seems right to take Merle Haggard at his word: "Okie From Muskogee" is an easy-going, affectionate satire of his father's generation that in the process perfectly articulates their resentments and fears. At the same time, it harbors (one suspects) a certain amount of secret envy. Today, "Okie" endures as one of the essential songs of the Sixties and as the most important song of Haggard's career. Forty years later, his voice remains one of the marvels of country music, a true national treasure.

We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee;
We don't take our trips on LSD
We don't burn our draft cards down on Main Street;
We like livin' right, and bein' free.

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 don't make a party out of lovin';
We like holdin' hands and pitchin' 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.

Leather boots are still in style for manly footwear;
Beads and Roman sandals won't be seen.
Football's still the roughest thing on campus,
And the kids here still respect the college dean.

We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,
In Muskogee, Oklahoma, USA.


  1. Heh, heh! Yup, that was the song we loved to hate. Did you ever hear the Youngbloods's parody of that - "Hippie From Orleana"? I think they might even have done that one at Woodstock. We used to sing that one good and loud, and especially the line that goes: "And we still take in strangers who are haggard..."

  2. I haven't heard that one. Kinky Friedman has one called "Asshole From El Paso."

  3. Nice write-up. Hard to believe the song was so long ago. Isn't that Bonnie Owens (previously married to Buck Owens and then married Merle) backup singer?.

  4. Talk about a great catch! Linda, you may well be right about Bonnie Owens. She did sing in Haggard's band for years.

    I've been lucky enough to see Merle twice -- once opening for Bob Dylan a couple of years ago and once back in the early 80's. That amazing baritone is something to hear live, and his bands were the definition of tightness.

  5. M Haggard is a musician of real stature in the country canon-- whatever one might make of "Okie," songs like "California Cottonfield" (my personal favorite of his, which Gram Parsons covered) & "Mamma Tried" are just great-- folksongs in the making (as is "Okie" too, no doubt). Funny, as I was reading your post I kept thinking of a more clearly satirical song in a similar vein that I like a lot: Ray Wylie Hubbard's "Redneck Mother," covered by Jerry Jeff Walker (& yours truly at too many jam sessions to count).