50 Greatest City, State, And Town Songs – #4: “Okie From Muskogee” by Merle Haggard
“Okie From Muskogee” by Merle Haggard
Album: “Okie From Muskogee”
Chart Peak: #1
City, State, or Town: Muskogee, Oklahoma
Of all the singers to come out of the great state of Oklahoma, only one shines brighter than them all. That would be the legendary Merle Haggard. The Hag, as many refer to him, grew his career into one of the most effective and successful the genre has ever seen and during the time of the Vietnam War, along side his drummer from his backup band the Strangers, he wrote a song that would earn him a nickname that would stick to him forever and make the term “Okie” a classic reference to Oklahoma natives. “Okie From Muskogee” not only scored single of the year honors in the 70s, but the album scored an award as well and the single hit #1 on the charts for 4 weeks, an impressive rein at the time. What originally began as a combination of satire and a farce became a redneck pride song that would express Hag’s personal values as well as his pride and recognition of the way his people live in the small town of Muskogee, Oklahoma.
Hag’s trademark tune became an iconic symbol among the American citizens, especially today. Hag originally meant the song to be a farce towards the small town way of life, but very quickly began to relate it to how his father, an Okie, would have felt towards the protesters of the Vietnam War. he also realized how he felt, having understood what it was like to lose his freedom from several terms in jail. Thus, “Okie From Muskogee” became a song not only of pride, comedy, and entertainment, but of political significance as well. it should be noted that Hg was born and grew up in California, however he has always held high respect for his father, who died when he was nine, and the life that he led in state of origin. Thus Haggard used the small town of Muskogee to paint a portrait of small town life and how these people, the majority, live and respect one another and the people who were fighting in the war. In relation to current conditions, this song can still be seen with the same purpose by speaking for the respect and devotion that the soldier in Iraq have for their country.
Throughout the song Merle shoots down the actions and stereotypical aspect of hippies and protesters that at the time tried so hard to make their rebellious and angry voices heard the hard way. Merle was able to make his voice heard the easy way, in music. In the first verse he sights the use of LSD, marijuana, and the burning of draft cards by hippies in their everyday lives. He denies these actions as typical or even acceptable in the town he hail from in the song, which we come to find out is Muskogee. The Hag continues to shoot down hippie traditions as he speak against making love as a sport and growing hair into shaggy messes in the second verse. To make the song more personal he specifies San Francisco as a specific location for these people. He does this to relate the small town life of Muskogee to the large city life that these protesters seem to enjoy so much.
The third verse makes it all much more personal as the Hag becomes more praising of the Okie life. he refers to the leather boots and football as the traditional American symbols of rough housing and foot-ware over the violent protesting and the sandals and beads that the other side of the spectrum have made into trademarks. College is also made a reference when the hag praises the Muskogee’s respect for their higher authority figures that at the time had faded. It is quite ironic how the Hag made such a big deal out of traditional respect for the higher figures as well as for the country lifestyle because after his father’s death Merle became a figure of young rebellion in his own right being convicted of petty crimes and juvenile wrong-doings. In fact, as I mentioned, this song was written after he was released from jail at one point and was partly inspired by his lack of freedom while in the “joint” and the disrespect for the fight for freedom that the protesters of the war were showing.
The chorus, probably the most famous aspect of the song, brings the statement right out into the open. Merle states how he is “proud to be an Okie from Muskogee”, meaning he shows full support for the small town life and the patriotic, respectable and supportive lifestyle that not only keep everyone on the same page, but also ensures peace and tranquility among the small town people alone. Revealing the comedic nature of the song, he refers to squares being able to enjoy themselves and in a way shows acceptance of the minority, shows inclusion of the underdog and shows respect for the nerds, geeks and social outcasts that are all part of society. Merle has also said that he has always included himself as one of those squares. As the chorus continues he makes a patriotic stand by referring to Old Glory, the American flag, and shunning the personal feelings and disrespect of the protesters. The last line makes a reference that can be taken in different ways. It refers to white lightning as a source of joy and this can either refer to moonshine or the the 1950s George Jones hit.
Even today Merle haggard continues to be a huge political figure in the genre. His views come highly respected and often controversial in the eyes and ears of the American public. During the Vietnam war this was no different. What began as a farce and a satire towards small town life and the protesters and big city Americans became a redneck pride song that doesn’t directly support any acts of war, but shows praise for the small town ways of life that express respect and pride in our country. Hag never showed straight out support for the Vietnam War, but instead showed support for the freedom that the troops were fighting to keep and displeasure in the disrespect and ironic insanity that the hippies and protesters were expressing. This song can even be relevant to today’s world as hag has shown great support for the troops and their cause, but not for the war on terror or our involvement in the conflict as a whole. What originated as a comedy went on to become an iconic and multi-interpreted hit that has and will last for years to come. Merle Haggard was smart, careful and creative in his attempt to combine comedy and pride into one big plot and create one of the most powerful hits of all time.