Sunday will be the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest and most debated songs in country music history: Okie From Muskogee by working-class poet Merle Haggard. Ken Burns’ country music documentary on PBS, coincidentally, introduced the Hag last night and will cover Okie From Muskogee tonight. I cheated and went ahead and streamed tonight’s episode last night. If you are looking for a definitive answer as to whether Merle was being serious or tongue-in-cheek, you aren’t going to get it. Why do I think there is a fairly straightforward answer, when even Tyler Coe poring over the song for over an hour doesn’t get there? Let me tell you.
Tonight’s episode references the tradition of what it refers to as “hokum” in country music, giving a long list of examples. Brad Paisley practically built his career on “novelty” songs. Although I don’t like that term, because it gives the wrong impression about the nature of these songs and their role in country music. These songs build on and reflect a hillbilly cultural tradition of being, the parlance of our times, both ironic or unironic at the same time.
The problem with arguing Merle wasn’t being tongue-in-cheek is that there is a lot of evidence that he was. His band members at the time, at least, smoked dope, and nobody seriously believes college kids respect the dean of students. The problem with arguing Merle was being tongue-in-cheek is that there is a lot of evidence that he wasn’t. It’s far from the only populist song he recorded in his career. The natural response to being denigrated in California as an Okie is to identify more with Oklahomans, not less.
You can’t pin Okie From Muskogee down as entirely tongue-in-cheek or entirely not tongue-in-cheek because it embraces both, and in doing so is acting within a rich musical and cultural tradition. It is an approach that enriches the song.
This view also recognizes that the divide between hippies and rednecks wasn’t really all that stark. Boys wearing peace sign necklaces would grow up to become family men (as my dad did). Working class Americans would grow out their hair and beards (as my dad did), and the counterculture would come to be much better represented in working class American than outside of it. Hence that great movie of the counterculture, Smokey and the Bandit. Country music would continue to draw from every possible inspiration while examining capital-t Truth.
It is a particularly welcome approach today, when plenty of volunteers are readily available to attempt to politicize anything and everything. Politics, by its nature, is pounding square pegs into round holes and reducing everything to a binary choice. Life is more complicated. Politics also encourages over-seriousness. But human beings are perfectly capable of poking fun around serious matters and continuing to treat them as serious.
The answer for Merle’s reticence and conflicting statements on the topic is simple as well. Merle didn’t want to be pigeonholed. He was as comfortable singing about “so-called social security” in Big City as he was singing about interracial love in Irma Jackson (itself an excellent and underappreciated song of his). Neither Merle nor his audience fit easily in a narrow box.
So don’t tune into Ken Burns’ documentary tonight looking for a long segment on Okie From Muskogee, but do turn in: the entire documentary is absolutely not to be missed.
Okie From Muskogee is the title track off Merle’s album Okie From Muskogee.
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