The legendary country music singer-songwriter Merle Haggard passed away earlier this month on April 6, his 79th birthday.
I've spent the last couple weeks revisiting Haggard's enormous catalog of recorded work, which includes nearly 50 albums released over the course of six decades. It's been fascinating to reexamine Haggard's work in the midst of the current political atmosphere of the United States.
Political pundits have struggled to understand the mood of the electorate during this presidential election cycle. Anger, resentment and distrust of establishment politics have fueled the ascendancy of outsider candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Many in the media have been confounded by what they view as a very sudden and unexpected shift in the attitudes of the American public, particularly in regard to the rise of Donald Trump. Pledging support for an isolationist foreign policy, extolling the virtues of conservative Judeo-Christian beliefs, and voicing serious concern over job losses in the crumbling American manufacturing industry, Trump rocketed to the top of the Republican presidential heap.
As a songwriter, Merle Haggard has been addressing issues in line with this discourse for the entirety of his career. Haggard became famous for chronicling the concerns and troubles of America's white working class and poor, a trait that earned Haggard the designation "poet of the working man.”
Perhaps if politicians had listened more carefully to the concerns of working class white Americans, as expressed through the songs of Merle Haggard, we wouldn't be dealing with the menace of Trump's demagoguery today.
Haggard was a masterful wordsmith, with an ability to express complex emotional and social themes in a poetic but straightforward language that was immediately digestible to country music audiences. While I'm a huge fan of Haggard's music, I can't say that I agreed with all the sentiments he expressed in his lyrics. I feel there were times when the songwriter pandered to the conservative opinions of his core country music audience. But there were also times when Haggard challenged the conservative beliefs of those same fans. At some point in his career, Haggard has probably alienated every single one of his followers, myself included.
Haggard was born in Southern California to parents who migrated West from Oklahoma during the Great Depression. He grew up in serious poverty. His family lived in a makeshift home constructed from a railroad boxcar. At age nine, Haggard's father died, and he spent the remainder of his youth being shuffled in and out of juvenile detention facilities until an arrest for attempted robbery landed Haggard in San Quentin Prison around age nineteen. "I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole" Haggard sings in his moving 1968 hit "Mama Tried.”
Haggard drew artistic inspiration from his difficult past throughout his career. His first three number one records - "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive" "Branded Man" and "Sing Me Back Home" - all comment on some aspect of prison life and his conflicts with the law. 1968's "Branded Man" is my favorite of these early hits, expressing the pain of an ex-convict attempting to integrate back into society. In early 1969 Haggard racked up his fifth number one record with "Hungry Eyes" a ballad reflecting on the poverty of his youth. "Us kids were just too young to realize that another class of people put us somewhere just below. One more reason for my mama's hungry eyes."
A few months later Haggard hit the top of the charts again with "Workin' Man Blues.” "I ain't never been on welfare and that's one place I'll never be," Haggard sings in what would be the first of many major songs he'd pen expressing the frustrations of America's working class. A couple of my personal favorites on this theme include 1977's "A Working Man Can't Get Nowhere Today," where Haggard laments the difficulty of living in debt, or 1990's "Under The Bridge," which connects the issue of homelessness with the decline of American jobs.
Haggard's next pair of number one records, earned the singer an unwanted reputation as a mouthpiece for conservative politicians. 1969's "Okie from Muskogee" finds Haggard throwing punches against the liberal hippie culture of the '60s. 1970's "The Fightin' Side of Me" is an angry, jingoistic defense of American militarism written during the height of resistance to the Vietnam war. Both of these songs became career-defining hits for Haggard, championed by the Nixon administration and loved by millions of fans across the country.
A 1969 Atlantic Monthly review of a Haggard concert in Dayton, Ohio observed the enormous influence the singer's right-wing anthems had on audiences of that period: "Suddenly they are on their feet, berserk, waving flags and stomping and whistling and cheering… and for those brief moments the majority isn’t silent anymore.” Sound familiar?
While Haggard continued to perform these songs up until his death, he often took the opportunity to distance himself from the message. In a 2007 interview with Deke Dickerson for a Bear Family Records box set Haggard stated he was "dumb as a rock" during this period: "I thought that the government told us the truth, and I thought that marijuana made you walk around with your mouth open… they were young kids that I was irritated with, and they were doing things that I thought were un-American. Well, it wasn't un-American, they were smarter than me! Kids are always smarter than the old folks....they see through our bigotry, and our hypocrisy. And I had a great lesson in life to learn, that they were already aware of. I believe history has proven them right. The Vietnam War was a hoax, the reason we went to war was a lie," Haggard said.
Interestingly, Haggard attempted to release two songs around this time that distanced himself from a right-wing persona, but Capitol Records initially refused to issue the work. "There's no way the world will understand that love is blind," Haggard sings on his interracial love ballad "Irma Jackson.” And on the unreleased 1970 tune "Somewhere in Between" Haggard wrote "I stand looking at the left wing, and I turn towards the right and either side don't look too good examined under light… I stand somewhere in between divided wings."
The ability to learn, grow and change is one of the characteristics I admired most about Haggard as an artist. In the final decade of his career Haggard's views evolved in ways that surely mystified his longtime fans. His 2005 track "America First" criticizes American imperialist military campaigns in sharp contrast to the "love it, leave it" attitude expressed in The Fightin' Side of Me.” "Let's get out of Iraq and get back on the track," Haggard sings. "Let's rebuild America first. Why don't we liberate these United States, we're the ones who need it the most. And maneuvering far outside the realm of conservative respectability, Haggard composed a pair of tunes for both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
A fundamental theme throughout Haggard's work was an attempt to find value, meaning and pride in the lives of human beings the establishment may have written off as worthless or criminal. Sadly, Haggard didn't always honor this defense of the culturally maligned. After 9/11, comments Haggard made about Muslims raised hackles - but this is the same man who answered an invitation to perform from former KKK leader David Duke with the message "go get fucked."
There's as much wisdom about the American experience in Haggard's songs as you'll find in the work of great writers like John Steinbeck or Langston Hughes. In this difficult period of our nation's history where many of us are struggling to understand the psyche of our fellow countrymen, Merle Haggard's work – and life – holds substantial insight.