Merle Haggard was a music giant – great voice, songs and guitar. He will be remembered well.
But he will especially be remembered for one song, “Okie from Muskogee.” It’s an ode to small town living and conservative values, right? Nope.
Haggard wrote it as a spoof, a parody of what he considered small-town small mindedness. He didn’t expect it to be taken seriously, and he didn’t expect it to be a hit. It was, both. He said later that he regretted writing it, and that he was “dumb as a post” when he released it.
The song was taken up as an anthem by conservative America. It fell right into Richard Nixon’s newformed narrative of a “silent majority” that backed his policies but was too polite to say so – some think the song inspired it.
With lyrics like…
We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don’t take our trips on LSD
We don’t burn our draft cards out on Main Street
We like livin’ right and bein’ free
…it was taken as a declaration of war on people with long hair who were against the war in Vietnam.
Nixon cultivated the growing divide carefully, unleashing his attack dog Spiro Agnew on anyone who disagreed with him. It blossomed into his “southern strategy,” a carefully phrased appeal to working class whites to abandon the Democratic party. It was based on the resentment against rebellious young people and blacks, and it was extraordinarily successful. It led directly to the wall between right and left that we know so well today.
Merle Haggard’s song was a brick in that wall, but he didn’t put it there. Let’s remember all the other songs he wrote, and remember the man fondly.
There’s a lot more about the music of the times in Some Way Outa Here…