Written by Mae Nixon. March 1, 2016.
The song “Okie From Muskogee”, by country icon Merle Haggard, was as controversial as it was successful. Released in 1969, the song soared to immediate popularity reaching #1 on the Billboard Magazine Hot Country Singles chart in less than a month of its release. The reasons for the song’s quick success are merely due to the controversial message that the artist and fellow band mate, Roy Edward Burris, wrote while driving through the small rural town of Muskogee, Oklahoma. Haggard admits in an interview that his intentions for the song were to be a satirical “protest to the protesters” during the Vietnam War; but to many, the song was interpreted literally, and consequently ignited many controversial debates involving the song’s politics and patriotism. The song’s controversial elements led it to being banned from several radio stations that rejected its lyrics, but never stopped it from becoming a cultural touchstone for country music and arguably the biggest hit of Merle Haggard’s career.
Merle Haggard is a man of many talents. Not only is he a renowned country singer, songwriter, guitarist, and fiddler; Haggard contributed to the creation of the Bakersfield Sound, a new style of country music developed in the late 1950’s that combined a unique, electrified edge borrowed from rock and roll and mixed with classic country. Merle Haggard and fellow country star, Buck Owens, take credit for introducing the sound to more mainstream audiences, which greatly challenged the traditional “Nashville-sound” that was heard on most recordings in that particular era.
The typical Nashville-sound was a popular subgenre that ignited the interests of middle and upper class listeners by tending to stay away from drug references and the stereotypical southern “bumpkin” style of living. “Okie” is a great example of how the new Bakersfield sound challenged typical mainstream country because the song’s literal meaning is an implementation of the artist’s pride in being from a “bumpkin” town in Oklahoma during a time of vast migration and change. The success of “Okie From Muskogee” attributed to Haggard becoming a well-established artist by the 1970’s, and from the numerous hits that followed throughout his career, Haggard eventually landed in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994. During his youth, Haggard served jail time for a few minor offenses, which he later admitted in an interview that he knew “what it was like to have freedom taken away”. Haggard believed that “freedom was everything”, which ended up being a key ingredient in writing his hit song. These feelings led to the first instance of controversy that the song ignited.
The Vietnam War was more than just a war; it was a cultural milestone for the music industry, as it influenced the production of some of the greatest songs in history. The young activists who protested rising racial tensions, assassinations, and the division of views concerning the War were huge contributors to the radicalization of America, but to Merle Haggard, the protesters were none other than “free young kids” who were only “bitching” about a freedom that they already had while soldiers were the ones who actually fought and risked their lives. Several other country singers also began taking the side of the government in the War protests, such as Roy Clark’s “Hee Haw Revolution”, which was a similar satirical take on the emergence of “hippie” protestors.
Haggard admitted in an interview that the song was written through his “disheartened emotions that evolved from watching the protests” and was directly intended to support the troops that he felt so many “disparaged”. “Okie From Musgokee” is a song that satirically pokes fun at the emerging “hippies out in San Francisco” by reflecting on the traditionalism and true patriotism of small town middle America. The song’s success however, was due to the fact that the intended satire was taken far too literally by both political parties, as songfacts.com states that, “it quickly became clear that many listeners really did despise the liberal, elite hippies in San Francisco and heard the song not as a commentary on the folly of intolerance, but as a song about southern pride”. The song verse “we don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street” is a great example of how important respecting the government was to Haggard and the frustration he and many others were feeling. “Okie” became known as the “anthem for conservatives” and as a tribute to past generation Americans—specifically Haggard’s father—who would be “appalled at the way people were reacting” to the reality of the War.
As most liberals at the time agreed that the song promoted conservative values, there were still many people who praised Haggard for his honesty and pride. President Richard Nixon was a big advocate for Haggard’s “anthem”, as he wrote him a letter in appreciation and even invited him to sing the song at the White House. “Okie” received several instances of praise throughout history, like the documentation of the song’s original lyrics on display at the Smithsonian Institute and the inclusion of a copy of the lyrics in a time capsule currently residing on the moon.
Not surprisingly, there were several people who did not praise the song and found it extremely discomforting that Haggard was applauded by the president. The declaration of war collided with the rise of Black Power in 1960’s America, and it soon became clear that Vietnam was the U.S.’s first major conflict involving racial integration. A CMT exclusive episode on “Okie” discusses how Black Panther Party activists during the era were examples of “counterculture” leaders that deemed Haggard’s song “divisive” and claimed that the song was wrongfully profiling a certain segment of society. Although the song does not directly address the Civil Rights Movement, it was still perceived as offensive to those opposing Haggard’s views. Because of the sudden uproar and disagreement with the song’s interpreted politics, liberal-influenced radio stations quickly began banning the song from playing on their air stations. Although this caused Haggard to lose many television appearances, “Okie From Muskogee” continued to climb the charts and landed both the Country Music Association’s single and album of the year in 1970.
Due to the negativity that emerged from the production of the song, when Haggard began performing it, he was initially astonished by the reactions of his audiences. David Cantwell, author of Merle Haggard’s biography, states, “’Okie’ consistently prompted more than an enthusiastic applause and standing ovations that went on and on”. It is understandable that some of the song’s verses, such as “we don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy”, can be completely misinterpreted and offensive to many, but to Merle and his audiences, the song voiced views and values that were otherwise kept quiet and were expressed in a stylistic element that was ironically similar to the way the protesters spoke out against the War.
Haggard’s expressive style attracted many other artists that followed him, including artists from different genres. Rock artists like Dean Martin, The Grateful Dead, and the Everly Brothers covered many of Haggard’s songs due to the impact that the artist’s music had on his audiences. The influence Haggard had on others is perfectly summarized in a Rolling Stone Magazine review written by Andy Whickam, where the author states that Haggard’s success is “resultant of his inherent ability to relate to his audience a commonplace experience with precisely the right emotional pitch”. “Okie From Muskogee” was an anthem for the common “silent majority” of the era and set the tone for the future of patriotic songs. “The Fightin Side of Me” was another great hit by Haggard that held a similar message of values and politics, and modern country artist, Toby Keith, has admitted that those two songs were the “original Angry American” tunes that helped define Haggard’s role in the music industry.
Haggard’s song structure is also a very important element in the song’s success. The song’s verse-chorus structure is extremely catchy and reminiscent on traditional country sound with the unique implementation of the Bakersfield sound electrifying the vibes of the entire song. Haggard’s smooth country twang is a great addition to the tone, as it gives character to the story being told in the lyrics, a famously stereotypical aspect that is seen in many country songs sung about the old south. The stylistic elements in “Okie From Muskogee” crafted a signature sound for the artist that continues to be heard in his songs throughout his career. Although Haggard’s studio recording of “Okie” was the most successful, the live recordings of the song were also very popular. The live recordings consisted of excited crowds and Haggard’s personal additions to the lyrics in the last two verses.
The success of the song and the success of the song’s structure also encouraged many parodies to be created. “Okie” was first parodied by Chinga Chavin into a song called “Asshole from El Paso”, that was then covered and made more successful by Kinky Friedman. The message conveyed in “Asshole from El Paso” is similar to “Okie”, as the lyrics are also a satirical representation of conservative views, but are much more right-winged, to say the least. Another parody emerged from Haggard’s hit, which was more of a contrast to the original song than Chinga Chavin’s parody. The song “Hippie from Olema” by the Youngbloods, was written in the same verse structure as the two-preceding songs, but the lyrical meanings differ, as seen in lines such as “where we’re friendly to the squares and all the straights” and “we can’t think of anyone to hate”.
Despite the controversy that erupted during the time the song was created, “Okie” is a classic country hit that will remain one of the top country songs of all times. Merle Haggard performed his hit recently at the 2014 Grammy Awards ceremony alongside Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and newcomer Blake Shelton as a tribute to the people who had recently lost their homes due to tornados in Oklahoma. The reaction from even the modern day audience goes to show how much of an impact Haggard’s song and career had on the music industry and the American culture as a whole, as the diverse crowd stood and sang along to the entire song. Merle Haggard is an outlaw country singer for good reason, and between the reaction that occurred from the song and the controversial support that followed, it is clear why “Okie From Muskogee” has been such a cultural touchstone for country music.
Berlau, John. “The Battle Over “Okie From Muskogee”” Weekly Standard. The Weekly Standard, 18 Aug. 1996. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.
Cantwell, David. Merle Haggard: The Running Kind. Austin: U of Texas, 2013. Print.
Controversy : Okie From Muskogee. Perf. Merle Haggard, Richard Nixon. N.d. CMT: Country Music Television. CMT. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.
Harmetz, Aljean. “Reagan Entertained by Singer He Once Pardoned.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 07 Mar. 1982. Web. 01 Mar. 2016.
“Okie From Muskogee by Merle Haggard Songfacts.” Okie From Muskogee by Merle Haggard Songfacts. Song Facts, n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.
Wickham, Andy. “Merle Haggard Album Review.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone Magazine, 1 Mar. 1969. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.