Merle and Me… Breaking Up Was Hard to Do

Merle1(With gladness, I welcome Tod Moquist to our pages. One of my oldest friends, we began conspiring in first grade, growing up a block from each other in the great San Joaquin Valley of California. Years later, I was the editor of our high school newspaper, and Tod was the editorial editor and cartoonist; that he was made me proud and glad, as his good mind and heart added unusual depth to our efforts. We stayed friends over the years, sometimes working together, often talking with each other, and that has only continued through the years. After his graduate studies in Toronto and Berkeley, he stepped into the wonder and complexity of the agricultural economy of California, where he has worked for most of his life. When I read of Merle Haggard’s death— Merle being a native of the same world in which Tod and I grew up —I asked if he would be willing to write something for us about his long love for this balladeer from Bakersfield. He has, and it is all that I hoped for. Read and smile.)

Two figures loom over the imaginative landscape of California’s hot, verdant and contested Central Valley. John Steinbeck is the first. For those of us who grew up here and reflected on our fate, Steinbeck’s narratives of migrant hardship and rural conflict went a great distance to explain the underbelly of our communities. Today migrants flow from Mexico rather than Oklahoma, but the poverty and struggle are enduring. 

The second is Merle Haggard, country singer-songwriter, guitarist, fiddler and proud Okie.  Born in 1937 in Oildale, a Dust Bowl shantytown suburb of Bakersfield, California,  Haggard was the son of the Okie migrants Steinbeck passionately evokes.  In the early innings, Merle shared a zone of protest with Steinbeck. Like Tom Joad, he was a young man on fire, who after a stint in prison found his life calling—in Haggard’s case, strumming a guitar and singing in ramshackle honky-tonks.  Early song writing subjects were impoverished families who encountered prejudice as they “followed the crops” in California, and their errant sons were jailbirds or fugitives from the law. For the better part of his career, however, Haggard’s lyrical world largely revolved around the unsettling realities of the settled life.  He dealt at length with the lives of working-class men and women; the vagaries of love, moral drift, pride of work and place— all from his very masculine POV. 

I raised a lot of cane in my younger days, while Mama used to pray my crops would fail….

Musically, Haggard’s genius was to blend tradition and innovation in country music. His catalog is a virtual “elements of style”—of the blues, popular standards and, most notably, western swing. He and his band, the Strangers, left their own elegant mark on each production. Of all the performances of various artists that I’ve seen over the years, two have left indelible impressions; Haggard was at the center of both of them. One was a raucous three-hour, open-air reunion with Buck Owens, together with their protege Dwight Yoakam in 1995.  The other was a small gathering of Haggard’s friends, family and an assortment of scholars at Cal State Bakersfield.  After a public interview in a cozy auditorium with a local reporter  (which, in the presence of so many intimates, felt more like a confession), he played unplugged for an hour, accompanied by his younger friend and big-haired bluegrass legend Marty Stewart, who spoke of his love for Haggard, telling a story of going on a midnight ramble through a local cotton field just to soak in the atmosphere of Haggard’s tender years.

Tulare dust in a farm boy’s nose, wonderin’ where the freight train goes….

I first saw Merle Haggard when in grade school during an amateurish local broadcast called— believe it  or not —“Cousin Herb’s Tradin’ Post.”  The show was an early showcase of the Bakersfield sound, full of young yet to be discovered talent, all of whom were children of the Dust Bowl. The grainy black-and-white broadcast couldn’t do justice to their fancy sequined jackets or colorful scarves. The tiny speakers in our old Magnavox television could only produce a tinny parody of their rich harmonies produced with skinny Telecaster guitars and twangy licks.

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But it was in my teenage years that I had my most indelible encounter with “Hag.”On Saturday nights we would gather at the drive-in, before venturing out into the seductive night. We’d drop quarters into the jukebox box to play “Mama Tried” and “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” over and again—whose characters and plot lines could have been lifted from the pages of The Grapes of Wrath. I loved Merle—all baritone and ballads. It was great to have a local hero—big enough to dispel our chronic feelings of inadequacy; California was cool, but Bakersfield not so. But Saturday night escapism only lasted so long. The politics of the Sixties were creeping over the coastal mountain ranges that normally gave us immunity from L.A and San Francisco nuttiness.  For every older buddy or big brother who volunteered for a second tour in Vietnam, there were five who came back damaged or bitter about that futile war. 

It was at this juncture that Haggard and I had a falling out. 

In September 1969, he released the wildly popular “Okie from Muskogee” a tongue-in-cheek caricature of small town normalcy versus hippie excess. For better or worse, it became his signature song. The meaning of “Okie from Muskogee” has been has been vigorously debated by the critics. Haggard, always a sly one with the media, over several decades offered contradictory interpretations. (He would subsequently distance himself from both the negative sentiments in these songs and the extremes of the political right.) In December of that year, he dropped the single “Fighting Side of Me,” a pugnacious rejoinder to the anti-war movement.   I was appalled, having taken my stand in some inarticulate way with Dylan and all the rest against the war.   Haggard might have been proud to be an Okie from Muskogee, but I didn’t hear pride in these tunes— I heard chauvinism.  Things were never quite the same for me after that, I began to look at Merle, my small town and its prejudices with skepticism.

…We don’t burn our draft cards down on main street, we like livin’ right and bein’ free.

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Eventually, however, I got over it—taking my first clue from Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who loved Merle’s work, seemingly without reservation. The great 1969 album “Workingman’s Dead” was largely inspired by Haggard. Jerry had a great sense of humor, and I imagine him shrugging off Merle’s misdemeanors as one might forgive a favorite uncle who has shown up drunk at Thanksgiving.

Years later, when working a collaborative oral history of Dust Bowl migrants, it finally dawned on me that Haggard, with a few simple tunes, had single-handedly restored dignity to a generation of Depression-era transplants to California.  Everyone needs heroes.  People raised close to the soil and treated like dirt by their neighbors need heroes like crops need rain. But when I was seventeen years old and struggling with issues of war and dissent, I didn’t have the grace to see that. 

Music is life.  Who can resist this proposition? Bob Boilen’s recently published book, Your Song Changed My Life, celebrates it. Popular songs, even the least authentic, deal in both personal and social truths. They are auditory seductions which bring all shades of life’s experience—joy, pain, desire and its dilemmas—to emotional awareness, like nothing else.  In fact a lot of young men, including myself back in the day, couldn’t pick out a real emotion from of a lineup of adolescent urges, were it not for the sentimental education found in their playlists— common grace inscribed on vinyl, acetate or digital code.

And at times the songs that change our lives confront us to make painful choices. Sometimes it means breaking with one’s hero, one’s hometown, the inherited values of one’s youth. Sometimes they pitch us headlong into a future without a map. Strangely enough, these high-impact songs are not always our favorites. 

Merle is gone now, passing away in April after a long battle with lung cancer. He leaves behind a large family, countless fans and enough gold records, awards and honors to fill a museum.  Though he could be a difficult man, he was humble until the end—in his heart never leaving the boxcar he was raised in. 

A homespun gospel is woven into his work. One of most affecting of Haggard’s later collaborations was with the sugar-voiced singer-writer Iris Dement, a younger Arkie transplant to southern California. In Dement he must have found his kinder, gentler female counterpart; to listen to Haggard perform Dement’s “Dance on the Shores of Jordan” is a delight.

Someday, when we’re all dancing on the those distant shores, I’ll find Merle in the teeming crowd and ask him what he really meant to say with “Okie.”  Doubtless, after a nod to the critics, he’ll wink and fabricate some fancy new explanation—just to baffle us anew.

A native of California, Tod did graduate study in Toronto and Berkeley, and has worked in the agricultural economy of the Golden State for many years, offering its fruits to the world. Long a lover of good music, he began listening to Merle Haggard as a boy, and over the years only deepened his understanding of the man and his music.

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