An Apology for Merle Haggard


Anyone who remembers the live version of "Okie from Muskogee" a few years ago is familiar with the way some people respond to Merle Haggard. When, in 1969, he was singing:

We don't burn our draft cards down on

Main Street,

'Cause we like livin' right and bein' free, *

the background audience sounded like an army of cowboys in throes of orgiastic delight.


There were bound to be other reactions. Radio stations in the northeast began playing the song. Indeed, it was one of the few true country and western records ever to get non-country air play (Waylon Jennings's "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" and "Harper Valley P.T.A." were more "pop" than country.) "Okie" caught on with the "other" audience. The reasons, as one might expect, were perverse.

Young people in this part of the country would hear the reactionary message--the tirade against long hair, "free love" and LSD--and somehow would find it pleasant. Two kinds of insecurity about the sixties' new cultural and quasi-political values were assuaged. The paranoids could become enraged, raising a battle cry to fight the "rednecks" to the death, and anyone else with an uneasy self-image of rebelliousness could indulge his smugness by laughing at the yokels. It was better than John Wayne (no guilt about liking "Stagecoach") and besides, it had a great tune.

The possibilities for satire were obviously limitless. After the song came out (and became one of the largest-selling country records in history), Haggard was bombarded by requests for rights to the music: rock singers wanted to change the lyrics and strike back. A sure success formula, but Haggard refused to sell, and someone had to write a new tune for "Hippie from Olema" ("we don't throw our beer cans out the window," love, peace, etc.). Arlo Guthrie used to kick off his concerts with "Okie" itself, verbatim.

It was all a great joke, and although Merle Haggard continued to write and sing country songs, he lost the brief attention of the wider audience.

What he did next, actually, was to record something called "Fightin' Side of Me":

If you don't love it, leave it,

Let this song that I'm singin' be a warning,

When you're runnin' down our country.


You're walkin' on the fightin' side of me. **