Merle Haggard’s hit song Okie from Muskogee was released as both as a single and a live album in late 1969, and the live album sat atop the country charts on this day 53 years ago.
The project was also recognized by the Academy of Country Music as the “Album of the Year” in 1970.
The album acted as the first live album that was released underneath the band name of Merle Haggard and the Strangers and was released by Capitol Records in October 1969. In addition to the title track, it featured hits like “Silver Wings,” “Mama Tried,” “Swinging Doors,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “Workin’ Man Blues” and more.
For those wondering about the title of Haggard’s project, “Okie” is a term used to describe someone from Oklahoma, originating as a term for migrant workers in the Dust Bowl era. Muskogee is an actual town in the state of Oklahoma, and as a matter of fact, the live album was actually recorded in Muskogee’s Civic Center one day before the studio version of “Okie From Muskogee” went to country radio.
The title track of the album was somewhat “anti-hippie” or was at least against the Vietnam War protests that were happening through the United States at the time. Haggard explained that the song acted as a tribute to his father more than a political statement, but the contents of the song were definitely riddled with political statements.
In the 2001 documentary Beyond Nashville, Haggard explained his thought process behind the song:
“Muskogee was always referred to in my childhood as ‘back home.’ So I saw that sign and my whole childhood flashed before my eyes and I thought, ‘I wonder what dad would think about the youthful uprising that was occurring at the time.
I understood ’em, I got a long with it, but what if he was to come alive at this moment? And I thought, what a way to describe the kind of people in America that are still sittin’ in the center of the country sayin’, ‘What is goin’ on on these campuses?'”
He also confessed in another interviewthat he wrote it about soldiers in Vietnam, the ones fighting for freedom:
“When I was in prison, I knew what it was like to have freedom taken away. Freedom is everything.
During Vietnam, there were all kinds of protests. Here were these [servicemen] going over there and dying for a cause — we don’t even know what it was really all about — and here are these young kids, that were free, bitching about it… we were in a wonderful time in America, and music was in a wonderful place. America was at its peak, and what the hell did these kids have to complain about?
These soldiers were giving up their freedom and lives to make sure others could stay free. I wrote the song to support those soldiers.”
Later on in his life, Haggard admitted that he had learned a lot since he had written and performed the song and somewhat regretted some of the lyrical choices and walked them back, even though commercially the song did quite well.
It has also been widely reported that the song was written as a satire, or sarcastically, however Merle himself has given varying accounts regarding the true genesis of the song.
In an interview with No Depression, he said:
“My views on marijuana have totally changed. I think we were brainwashed, and I think anybody that doesn’t know that needs to get up and read and look around, get their own information.
It’s a cooperative government project to make us think marijuana should be outlawed.”
So perhaps it started out one way and took on a new meaning as Merle got older.
If you are unfamiliar with the song, the lyrics state:
“We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don’t take our trips on LSD
We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street
‘Cause we like living right, and being free
We don’t make a party out of lovin’
But we like holding hands and pitching woo
We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy
Like the hippies out in San Francisco do
And I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee
A place where even squares can have a ball
We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse
And white lightnings still the biggest thrill of all…”
Keeping in mind the lyrics of the song and the live performance of the tune linked below, I have a couple of personal thoughts in regards to “Okie from Muskogee:”
-San Francisco definitely catches a stray in the song, and really any other bigger city could have been put in its place, but I guess Haggard didn’t care much for the city by the bay.
-The bass player is slapping the hell out of the bass in the live performance. Keep an eye on him because he is killing it.
-Merle is anti-hippy in the song, which is a strong take to have in the 1970s. However, I guess that crowd wasn’t exactly his fanbase anyways.
-Watch until the end because Haggard hilariously messes up the very last line of the song, but covers it up pretty well with a cowboy-ish laugh/yee-haw sound. What can you say? Merle is a showman.
Hop into the country music time machine and enjoy this classic performance from Haggard on The Porter Wagoner Show: