54 years ago today, Merle Haggard released a song that will forever in live in the public consciousness.
“Okie From Muskogee” was the title track to Merle Haggard and The Strangers 1969 album. The single was immediately successful, reaching number one on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart where it spent 4 weeks at peak position. It also spilled over into the pop world, reaching number 41 on the Hot 100.
But we’re not here today to look at the numbers, but rather to figure out what the intent of this song truly was.
When the song was released, the United States was completely and directly engaged in the Vietnam War. Asking when exactly the US first got involved with the war is very complex and certainly was one of the reasons the public felt so torn about being involved with the conflict in the first place. What started as a regional dispute between the French and Viet Minh in the 1940’s had morphed into a proxy fight with the Soviet Union thanks to the Cold War. The US began to support the French backed resistance in 1950 as part of a growing anti-communist sentiment throughout the culture and to ensure the French would support the US in tamping down Soviet expansion in Europe.
By the time the French backed out in 1954, the US was footing 80% of the conflict’s military bill. A treaty was signed shortly after the French’s defeat which split Vietnam into two separate territories: a communist north and a noncommunist south. The US took over the main role of training and supporting the south Vietnamese territory militarily. 1,000 US advisors were deployed to Vietnam during this time, which many say signals the direct US involvement with the war, but it wasn’t until 1961 that the US ramped up efforts and began deploying troops to directly fight back against the spreading insurgency of the north Vietnamese.
The number of US troops sent to Vietnam began to creep up over the years until President Johnson made a statement at a press conference in July of 1965, saying the US was irrevocably committed to winning the war and fighting to the end.
Confused yet? That’s kind of the point.
As with anything with such a creeping scope, the US involvement in the Vietnam War began splitting the country in half. Some people were fully onboard with squashing communism anywhere it popped up on the planet to stop the spread of an ideology that was viewed as terminal for larger societies, while others raised the question of why exactly our country had to get involved with other counties governmental systems, especially when it was so far geographically removed from our own. Both view points at the time tended to align not with a reasoned, well thought out opinion, but a general association with the types of people who also held those views.
Of course, flash forward today and it’s easy to see how not much has changed…
Back to Merle Haggard.
Even though he was relatively new to the music scene at the time, Merle had lived a long and hard 32 years of life. His father died when he was young and his mother was forced to work to support the family. With his mother being gone for long hours and no disciplinary forces around to control him, Merle began getting into trouble.
He was arrested numerous time before he was 18, spending time in juvenile detention centers for shoplifting, truancy, assault, and petty larceny. He escaped these institutions at least twice and was transferred to a high security installation to serve the remainder of his time.
He began playing music with the help of Lefty Frizzell, but his days of crime were far from behind him. Merle was arrested yet again in 1957 after attempting to rob a roadhouse and was sent to San Quentin Prison, where he had multiple experiences that would change his life, including watching Johnny Cash’s iconic concert and befriending two prisoners on death row.
It’s important to know this part of Merle’s life to understand where his first stance on the Vietnam War came from. Growing up in a hard household, needing to get whatever he wanted in life on his own, doing whatever it took, legal or otherwise, to make money, and spending lots of time in very strict prison settings where respect for authority was not only preached, but demanded, will certainly alter one’s mindset. That formation will especially take root after he began putting his life together and making something of himself after he began, at least in part, to actually respect authority and follow the rules of society.
After an early release from San Quentin, Merle fully began pursuing a music career and started getting some traction in the late 60s with songs like “(My Friends Are Going To Be) Strangers” and “Sing Me Back Home”, but things skyrocketed when he put out “Okie From Muskogee” in 1969.
At the time, it seems like Merle may have written the song from a place of truth.
He related to the people of Middle America and those people loved everything about this country, believed in the messaging of the government and military, and wanted to support the supposed ideals that fueled US involvement in Vietnam. Perhaps more than that, though, the behavior of those who protested and the general type of people that were against the war ran completely counter to every portion of Merle’s life at that point.
I mean, he was very vocal about his disdain for hippies…
Right after it came out, Merle told a reporter that he wrote it with his drummer as a joke:
“We wrote it to be satirical, originally, but then people latched on to it and it really turned into this song that looked into the mindset of people so opposite of who and where we were.”
So, he just ran with it?
In 1988 Haggard told the Birmingham Post-Herald that the song was:
“A patriotic song that went to the top of the charts at a time when patriotism wasn’t really that popular.”
Here’s where it gets interesting…
In an 2010 interview with The Boot, Merle said the following about writing the song.
“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, b*tching about it. There’s something wrong with that and with [disparaging] those poor guys.
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.”
Looking at Merle’s life at the point he wrote “Okie From Muskogee,” it’s hard to fault his thinking. His life was great. He finally was free. Every night on the road, he looked at the people he met, fans that had similar backgrounds to him, and he just couldn’t understand that others could come to a different conclusion.
Disparaging members of the military? That was certainly not American and Merle was in a place where he loved America because he was a shining example that anyone, regardless of their past, could make it in this country and he saw those protestors as the physical embodiment of a movement to tear down that system and put in its place one where no one could succeed.
But as the years waned on in the war and it became clear the US could not win, had no business being there in the first place, and was sacrificing the lives of thousands of young Americans and millions of Vietnamese, his perspectives changed.
Maybe those protestors were more similar to him than he initially thought. Sure, lots of their actions were completely unacceptable and a giant, misplaced reaction to what they viewed as morally wrong, but didn’t Merle also make a lot of morally wrong decisions in his life? Weren’t those protestors using their rights as true and free Americans to voice their concerns? Didn’t Merle do quite a bit of drugs throughout his life?
This is not to push aside the horrendous treatment countless military members received upon coming back to the states; there is no excuse for that. But to deny that those protestors were utilizing their freedom, despite it not being the same way Merle and his fans did, was flat out incorrect.
Later in life, Merle looked back on that song and realized some flaws in his thinking. In fact, multiple times he went on to say it was intended to be a satire of ultra-conservative values of the day, but to me that seems like a bit of revisionist history.
Or maybe it’s both… can you write a song as satire, see how successful it becomes and a pro-America, anti-hippie song and embrace that, and then later in life go back to being honest about it?
Undoubtedly, Merle’s viewpoint changed over the years, culminating in a statement he made to American Songwriter in 2010.
“It was the photograph that I took of the way things looked through the eyes of a fool. I was just as dumb as a rock at about that time, and most of America was under the same assumptions I was.
As it’s stayed around now for 40 years, I sing the song now with a different attitude onstage. If you use that song now, it’s a really good snapshot of how dumb we were in the past. They had me fooled, too. I’ve become educated. I think one of the bigger mistakes politicians do is to get embarrassed when somebody catches them changing their opinion. God, what if they learned the truth since they expressed themselves in the past?
I’ve learned the truth since I wrote that song. I play it now with a different projection. It’s a different song now. I’m different now. I still believed in America then. I don’t know that I do now”
That statement, to me, says it all.
Despite his claim that it was written as a satire, I think there is an element of honestly in there as well. Maybe Merle was conflicted at the time, but either way, it stands the test of time as proof that opinions change. It says you shouldn’t shy away from your previous words; they came from a place of truth at the time and that moment felt just as right as the “enlightened” one you feel later looking back at how wrong it was.