(Dec. 4, 2016. Most readers no doubt remain obsessed with the stunning election and the careening new administration. Me, too. I’ll return to that topic a few weeks. Meanwhile, for something that’s totally different … or maybe not.)
In 1969, singer-songwriter Merle Haggard, who died this year at 79, had a country music hit which also won the Country Music Association song of the year award: “Okie From Muskogee.” “Okie” became the Vietnam-era anthem for millions of “Silent Majority” Americans who resented the insult to their ways of life they saw in the antics of 1960s anti-war protestors and do-your-thing hippies.
We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee / We don’t take no trips on LSD
We don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street / We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.
Haggard would later tell conflicting stories about the song that largely defined his career. At various times, he described it as a joke, a satire, a defense of his Okie father, and a justified rebuke to young kids who were bitching about America while soldiers were dying for their freedom to bitch. “I wrote the song to support those soldiers,” he once said. “I thought about them [hippies] looking down their noses at something I cherished very much and it pissed me off,” he said more recently. Though celebrated at the Nixon White House in 1973, by the end of his career Haggard was, in sharp contrast, performing for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In 2010, he said, “I’ve learned the truth since I wrote that song. I play it now with a different projection.” And he regretted, according to Rolling Stone, being seen as the “Poet Laureate of Pissed-Off White People” (see here, here, here).
Whatever Haggard’s intentions and regrets, the song became bigger than he. Country music audiences demanded it and cheered its flag-waving defense of Middle America. Many fans whose closest connection to rural America was wearing cowboy boots nonetheless saw themselves as culturally country and Haggard as their champion.
That was almost 50 years ago. Today, “Okie From Muskogee” also serves to tell us something about change in the parts of America that Muskogee represented.