Friday, June 8, 2012

The Age of Aquarius: Okie from Muskogee

Merle Haggard: Okie from Muskogee


No compilation of hippie music is complete without acknowledging its counterpart, the anti-hippie song. And no song better embodies the counter-counter-culture than Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee."

Haggard released the song twice in 1969 (as a studio recording and again as a live record), at the height of the anti-war protests. Its lyrics take a broad swipe at the hippie ethos. "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee," Haggard boasts in the song's opening salvo. "We don't let our hair grow long and shaggy...Leather boots are still in style for manly footwear...The kids here still respect the college dean."

There's a lingering question as to whether Haggard subscribed to the song's philosophy. It's easy to assume he was being sincere; listen to the introduction he gives the song on his landmark Okie from Muskogee Live record. "Okie" is one of several songs Haggard wrote and recorded at the time tweaking the counter-culture ("Fightin' Side of Me", "Working Man Blues"). And he didn't squawk when Richard Nixon endorsed the song and used it at political rallies.

But, in many interviews over the past two decades, Haggard has claimed he meant "Okie" to be a character study or satire. For example, in an interview with the A.V. Club website, Haggard says the song is merely "documentation of the uneducated that lived in America at the time." In another interview cited by Tom Roland in the book Number One Country Hits, Haggard says, "I didn't intend for 'Okie' to be taken as strongly from my lips as it was." And certainly, Haggard has written many songs that could be considered to be left of center, including Steinbeck-esque portraits of economic injustice in California, where he grew up.

"I always thought everybody got 'Okie from Muskogee' wrong," Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone in a profile of Haggard. "It's one of the funniest satires ever. If Randy Newman had written it, nobody would have thought twice."

Maybe. I suspect that while Haggard may not have fully sympathized with the song's sentiment, he meant for it to appeal to people who aligned themselves with its philosophy. As his politics changed -- and as he came to be recognized by the mainstream music press as one of the finest writers in the history of country music (an assessment I whole-heartedly agree with) -- Hag began engaging in a bit of revisionist history.

Kris Kristofferson, who for years satirized "Okie from Muskogee" in his live act, offers one of the best assessments of the song, suggesting it could be a kind of hippie anthem after all. He told Rolling Stone: "I remember saying...'Maybe that's the only bad song he ever wrote.' I was wrong. That song is saying 'I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee.' Coming from his background in California, that's like saying I'm black and I'm proud."

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