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#ThrowbackThursday: “Okie from Muskogee” by Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard "Okie From Muskogee"Capitol Records
  – Merle Haggard "Okie From Muskogee"Capitol Records

by Sean Smith

News broke yesterday that the country music industry lost one of its biggest stars in Merle Haggard. The country legend passed after battling a case of double pneumonia recently, an illness that caused him to cancel his touring schedule for the month of April just last week. He died on his 79th birthday.

Merle Haggard was the very embodiment of the outlaw country genre. He was born and raised in Oildale, California, where his parents had migrated to from Oklahoma, escaping the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s. He grew up in an old rail car that his father fashioned into a makeshift home. His father passed when Merle was just 9 years old, setting the stage for his troubled youth.

He got involved in a life of crime early, committing petty thefts and check fraud for which he would be sent to juvenile detentions for. In 1957, at the age of 20, he was arrested after he and a friend were caught trying to rob a restaurant. He was sent to Bakersfield Prison and after being caught trying to escape, he was then sent to San Quentin. While in San Quentin he allegedly ran a gambling and alcohol brewing operation out of his cell. Though he had dabbled in music prior to this point in his life, he decided to try and make a career out of it  after seeing the legendary Johnny Cash perform his very first prison concert at San Quentin on January 1, 1958.

After being paroled in 1960, Merle Haggard got his first gig in music playing bass guitar for California country music artist Wynn Stewart. Haggard would sign his first record deal of his own with Tally Records in 1962, and the rest as they say is history.

Merle Haggard had a total of 38 #1 songs on the Country music charts during his career. Songs like “Mama Tried”, “Workin’ Man Blues”, and “Everybody’s Had The Blues”. However, he will forever be remembered most notably for his song “Okie from Muskogee”, which is the focus of this week’s edition of Throwback.

In 1969 Merle Haggard released “Okie from Muskogee” as the lead single to his live album aptly named Okie from Muskogee. The song was a commercial success in large part due to its conservative message, although there are differing accounts about the true meaning of the song. Nonetheless, the single would go on to top Billboard’s country chart, and have crossover appeal as well, charting as high as 41 on the mainstream Hot 100 chart.

Now as for the differing accounts of the songs meaning and origin. What we know for sure is that Merle Haggard co-wrote this song with Roy Edward Burns, who was the drummer for his band The Strangers. We also know that the original idea to write the song came to them when they were traveling through Muskogee, Oklahoma, while on tour. As for the meaning of the lyrics, that is where there are some differing accounts. It was originally reported that the song was written in a form of jest, taking a look at the 1960s counter-culture and anti-Vietnam movement through the eyes of a more conservative viewpoint. Perhaps his father, who was originally from Muskogee, Oklahoma. This version of the origin story goes that after the song was released, it was received as an honest vocalization of what many conservative folks were feeling regarding the hippy and anti-war  movement. After being received as such, Haggard then viewed it as a more authentic and serious song. Other accounts state that the song was written from the beginning as a serious critique of the anti-war hippy culture on the rise at the time.

Regardless of the original intent behind the writing of “Okie from Muskogee”, the song has over time become an anthem of sorts for small-town conservatives. To this day, It continues to lend a voice to those who take umbrage with the progressive cultures that they feel threaten their way of life, whether it be in 1969 or 2016.

So with the tragic passing of country legend Merle Haggard, this week we take a moment to remember his 1969 #1 hit “Okie from Muskogee”. Enjoy.

Merle Haggard

Okie from Muskogee”

From Okie from Muskogee

Capitol Records