What is Merle Haggard's most successful song

Merle Haggard

The world's largest music fair, the SXSW in Austin, Texas, had ended the previous evening. For five days, 2,278 artists from 55 countries played their concerts in front of over 25,000 trade visitors from all over the world and in front of the local audience. The Showcase Festival, which in the 1990s once served to discover unknown bands, has long since mutated into a successful city marketing event, which, as those responsible proudly proclaim, directly and indirectly flushed over 218 million dollars into Austin's economy. The young people discovered the SXSW festival as a kind of substitute spring break, and the atmosphere on the streets is accordingly: a heated and alcohol-soaked mixture of Oktoberfest and Dante's Inferno. But now, on Sunday, most of the music officials from 64 countries were already on their way home, while the local festival-goers slept off their intoxication and the city was strangely quiet. Far outside the city, there was a musical highlight that afternoon, which hardly any of those who had traveled from far for the SXSW festival had even registered: a concert by the great Merle Haggard was announced at the "Austin Rodeo" taking place at the same time.

The Mexican taxi driver hadn't heard of the rodeo and had no idea where it was going to take place. After about thirty minutes of driving on the motorway out of town, he was visibly happy when I discovered the rodeo area in a meadow. It was the first rodeo of my life, and I had no idea what to expect there: First of all, a kind of agricultural exhibition where huge pickups and tractors were demonstrated, you could admire the removed engines, and there were temporary halls with cattle - mainly sheep and the Texas Longhorn cattle, after which the University of Texas football and basketball teams are named, the Longhorns. In addition, numerous food stalls offering tenderloins, “Krazy Frys” or “Sunday Cakes”. The little boys in their cowboy hats were allowed to climb onto the driver's seats of smaller tractors or multi-function excavators when they weren't using the relevant rides at a fair.

The audience: Mainly lower middle class and farmers, they wore cowboy hats and boots, T-shirts, plaid shirts, jeans. You viewed the technical equipment and the cattle with an expert eye or, if you came earlier from the city, with a little awe. Such big tractors! Such big longhorns! So krazy frys!

You had to pay admission for the largest temporary hall, where the actual rodeo took place: "Rodeo Austin - Where Weird Meets Western", in line with the motto of the Texan capital, "keep Austin weird", as if there was anything else in the slick technology and music capital would be crazy. The marketing trick is reminiscent of the CSU narration of Bavaria under Franz Josef Strauss: high-tech and lederhosen. In the Texan capital, where George W. Bush was once governor, it is: high-tech, music and western culture. The actual rodeo turns out to be a relatively banal and soulless line-up of men who try not to be thrown off by horses, of men who try not to be thrown off by bulls, and in between small boys who try not to let themselves be thrown off Not to have sheep discarded. Some of these riding demonstrations assess some kind of overall artistic impression, while others depend on the number of seconds you can ride the bulls. It's like a basketball game of the NBA or a talk show with Markus Lanz: The mood doesn't really come up, the audience has to be pointed out by whippers that what you see is particularly great and definitely worth applause . The event is tough and takes a long time. I don't know how many spectators came for the rodeo and how many for Merle Haggard. Then finally the riding is over, and a big tractor pulls the stage onto the soft track, on which the instruments are already set up and the band drives to the rodeo arena.

I have booked a ticket for the interior, we are led down from our seats in the rodeo grandstand to the entrance, where the rodeo riders usually wait before they are sent to the management on their horses or bulls. Again men in cowboy hats, women in embroidered cowboy blouses. We get foldable chairs and are taken to the management, where we are placed to the side of the stage. A certain nervousness is spreading. At some point it will be dark, drumming, and a huge white pickup truck drives into the management, in the passenger seat Merle Haggard: an old, shaky man with a bald head. The band begins to play a banal, vaudeville-like country dance piece, after a while the old man in the white pickup puts on his black cowboy hat, nods to the assistant outside the car door, who opens the door, Merle Haggard gets out, cheers break out up, and while still on the footboard of the pickup, Haggard takes off his hat and greets the audience quietly before he walks up the stairs to the stage, a little wobbly. His two background singers get out of the back of the pickup, no longer very young, in very short black dresses and, of course, with cowboy boots. And when the band has finished their intro, “the Hag” greets the audience: “Good afternoon! Nice to be here with you in Austin, Texas! "

While the stage slowly begins to spin so that everyone in the audience can see The Hag from the front, he starts the concert with one of his big hits, Big City (which was used by the Coen brothers in their 1981 film Fargo):

I'm tired of this dirty old city

Entirely too much work and never enough pay

And I'm tired of these dirty old sidewalks

Think I'll walk off my steady job today.

With the chorus sung along by parts of the audience:

Turn me loose, set me free

Somewhere in the middle of Montana

And gimme all I've got comin 'to me

And keep your retirement

And your so called social security

Big City, turn me loose and set me free.

This is very America, boy! Rural America above all. Where you are proud of "freedom" or what you think it is, where you wish to turn your back on the dirty big cities and the regular jobs - fuck pensions, fuck your "so-called" social security! Big city, let go of me, let go of me!

Merle Haggard is one of the most important singer / songwriters in America, and he embodies like few people the spirit and attitude to life of the American working class in the 20th century: These hard-working, sometimes hard-hitting people in more rural America who, despite everything and everything, have their hearts in the right place, as the saying goes.

No dialectic is negotiated here. It will not justifiedwhy people are doing badly, it is only stated. The life of the so-called ordinary people, the workers and the lower middle class, is described in the songs of Merle Haggard in a harsh realism that is also known from American short stories: economic problems above all, the resulting everyday life, love, separation, compulsions, Conventions. Hard boiled. Country as the theme of singers like Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and Tony Joe White has all of this in a way that has a lot to do with the blues of the 1920s and 1930s: Country as the blues of the white man, so to speak.

As a second song, Merle Haggard sings another of his countless hits (from 1966 to 1987 he had a whopping 38 number one hits in the US country charts, not a few of which were also number 1 on the general singles charts), Silver wings, a song of lovesickness, the loved one is sitting in an airplane, whose silver wings slowly get out of sight and carry the other away, "leaving me lonely", and a small, agonizing piano figure in the accompaniment underlines the finality and hopelessness of this feeling. And here is the other big, mystical concept of the American country and the American way of life: In addition to freedom, there is also loneliness, always. The loneliness of Hank Williams I'm so lonesome I could crywho have favourited The Solitude of John Wayne in John Fords The Searchers embodied Ethan Edwards in the wilderness of the "Wild West", i.e. the loneliness of the individual in the face of a vast, strange, wild country with hostile inhabitants (Jean-Pierre Melville, who loved America, prefixed his 1967 film Le Samouraï with the motto: " There is no greater solitude than that of the tiger in the jungle "...). Loneliness here is anything but a personal, but a social topos, a “world rift”, as Heinrich Heine called it, that is, a strangeness to the world and society, a strangeness that is created through adaptation and submission to certain terms such as “freedom “Being whitewashed.

Silver wings was the B-side of another hit Haggard released in 1969: Workin 'Man Blues. The song that cemented his role as the singer of poor America, the upright worker, the song of the father with his nine children who works hard and sometimes dreams of leaving his responsibilities behind, escaping the hard life and just settling in to put the next train, "to catch a train to another town", but it remains a small and short daydream, because in every other city exactly the same life would be waiting that he is trying to escape:

It's a big job gettin 'by with nine kids and a wife
You know I've been a workin 'man dang near all my life
I'll keep on working long as my two hands are fit to use
I drink my beer at a tavern

Sing a little bit of these working man blues
(...)

Sometimes I think about leavin ', do a little bummin' around
Throw my bills out the window, catch me a train to another town
But I go back workin ', I got to buy my kids a brand new pair of shoes
I drink my beer at a tavern and cry a little bit of these workin 'man blues
Here comin ', workin' man

Well, hey, hey, the working man, the working man like me
Never been on welfare and that's one place he will not be
He'd be workin 'just as long as his two hands are fit to use

"Working man blues":

As I said: there is no dialectic, no rebellion, no resistance to be found in songs like this any more than in American society. It is a submission to what is recognized as inevitable and unalterable, you continue to work as long as both hands can grab, in the evening you might drink a beer in the pub, and under no circumstances will you ever apply for social assistance or other state support - this tragic pride of the white "blue collar workers" ... One could now critically comment with Marcuse that such songs serve to "cement the existing", above all the existing social order. But it can also be stated that the self-assurance of a class, the description of its worries and needs is a rare commodity that at least helps to give this class a certain self-confidence. For, without a doubt, Merle Haggard wrote angry Songs about what it's like to live in poverty. And: in these songs things are negotiated that pop music hardly ever took notice, even less today than ever. This is about the working class, about the lower classes, who would never appear in the hit pop of all the Wandas, AnnenMayKantereits and Andrea Bergs of our day. Merle Haggard succeeded with his Workin 'Man Blues to write a kind of identity-creating hymn for the common man - a hymn that fitted in with the times and gave them face. America's hard-working lower middle class was Time magazine's 1969 Man and Women of the Year, and Peter Hamill published his essay, The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class, that same year. This class lived “alienated” as ever, but the workers were more angry with their situation than ever before. Wages stopped rising; they often fell. They didn't want to be on welfare, but damn it, if their hard work wasn't enough to feed their families, something was wrong. They just wanted to “live properly and free be". The Hag gave them a voice, for example with his songs Workin 'Man Blues or Hungry eyes, in which the singer remembers how his father tried to support his family with his “two hard working hands” in a “crowded labor camp” (Haggard's family lived in one of them). The song (and thus the album, which is probably Merle Haggard's best) starts with the line “A canvas-covered cabin stands out in this memory I revive”, and that already sets the mood, and this review is anything but nostalgic , there are no “good old days”, on the contrary: The family was extremely poor, the situation was hopeless, they fought for the minimum conditions of a decent life, something to eat, a roof over their heads:

Mama never had the luxuries she wanted
But it wasn't cause my daddy didn't try.
She only wanted things she really needed;
One more reason for my mama's hungry eyes.

There must be a change for the better! Like Arthur Miller's traveling salesman, the father clings to this hope in vain.

And us kids were just too young to realize
That another class of people put us somewhere just below;
One more reason for my mama's hungry eyes.

Merle Haggard writes here in a few lines and with cool bitterness the tragedy of the failed American dream.

Mama tried begins with the lines

First thing I remember knowing

Is a lonesome whistle blowin ',

which is the sung of another American myth that can be found again and again in Haggard's songs (in his very last song he sings about a freight wagon, "Kiss an old boxcar goodbye" ...): The train song. Mama tried tells of the social decline of a migrant worker who jumps on a freight train (Haggard ran away from home for the first time at the age of ten, after the death of his father, on a freight train he went north ...) and ends up in prison, just like Merle Haggard, who after several stays in so-called reformatory institutions in 1957 was imprisoned for three years in San Quentin prison because of burglary, where he saw Johnny Cash at his very first prison concert in 1958 (it is often said that Haggard was so impressed by this show, that he taught himself to play the guitar, which is quite a nonsense: at the age of twelve, in 1949, he had already taught himself to play the guitar, and in 1951 he had his first paid performances in Modesto). Haggard has experiencedwhat he sang about, and you can tell in his songs. And he took a stand, showed his composure, around 1972 Irma Jackson, a song about a forbidden multiracial love affair - a song that was supposed to be a single as early as 1969 that would have been a "smash hit" according to Johnny Cash, but his Capitol record company talked him out of it at the time. Narrow-minded, "narrow-minded", as Haggard explained in an interview with the "Wall Street Journal", were by no means only "the people", especially in the south of the USA, but also his record company ...

And again and again songs about the working class, about the failed and lost. If We Make It Through December tells of a father who lost his job in the factory and has no money to buy Christmas presents for his daughter. And then there is this Sing Me Back Home, whose refrain

Sing me back home with a song I used to hear

Make my old memories come alive

Take me away and turn back the years

Sing me back home before I die

could be mistaken for a sentimental song in the face of impending death if it weren't for the story Haggard tells in the first line:

"The warden led a prisoner down the hallway to his doom"

The prison guard leads a prisoner down the hall to his doom, it is his last walk, the death penalty awaits him. And he asks the guard if his guitar-playing friend can play one last song for him. And this song will simulate old memories for the death row inmate, take him to another world, turn back all the years. And the dark drum of the Strangers' drummer, Eddie Burri, imitates the heartbeat of the condemned man (the guitar on the studio recording of this song is played by none other than Glen Campbell).

"Sing me back home", live @ Austin City Lmits 1978:

And here it is again, the big difference to many who call themselves singer / songwriters today and whose songs can hardly be surpassed in terms of banality and kitschy feeling: Because Haggard writes things he has experienced himself. In this song he remembers his cellmate "Rabbit" Hendricks, who was killed in the gas chamber and whose last gang Haggard witnessed in prison. In an interview with “Billboard” in 1977, he recalls: “It is a feeling that you will never forget when you see someone you know take his last step.” And only the protagonists of the American (night) dream find redemption in the country song, which she sings "zurück nach heim", "back home".

In 1969 Merle Haggard recorded what is probably the most notorious song of his career: Okie from Muscogee, which he wrote with Strangers drummer Eddie Burri, the song that described in the simplest possible way the views of the so-called common people of rural and small-town America, who fear social change and try to dampen this fear in stereotypical reactionary truisms that arise direct against liberal America and especially against the hippie culture of California:

We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee;
We don't take no trips on LSD
We don't burn no draft cards down on Main Street;
We like livin 'right, and bein' free.
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 lightnin's still the biggest thrill of all
(...)
We don't make a party out of lovin ';
We like holdin 'hands and pitchin' woo;
We don't let our hair grow long and shaggy,
Like the hippies out in San Francisco do.

Undoubtedly, this song, which originated as a joke on the tour bus, was ironic, and without a doubt it was meant as a parody of the rural, let's say backwoods redneck culture. Just as unequivocally but got Okie from Muskogee a momentum of its own and became a monster hit, the anthem of conservative America. The times that David Cantwell refers to in his excellent book "Merle Haggard - The Running Kind" contributed to this not insignificantly: In October 1969, when Okie from Muscogee entered the country charts, the Weathermen organized the "Days of Rage" in Chicago, and the following week over two million young people protested against the Vietnam War and initiated their "Moratorium to End the War". In contrast, there were the conservatives, for whom the war in Vietnam was a war for American values, for “freedom and democracy” - without this ideological superstructure it would have been hard for the lower and lower middle classes to have their sons in Vietnam fought and not a few returned in coffins or cripples.

And now this country star came along and sang a song against the hippies. If it hadn't been a hit, there would never have been another hit! Some obituaries on Merle Haggard speak of the "often misunderstood" Okie from Muskogee, but it's not that easy to get away with. Sure, the song was created as a joke and meant ironically - but it had long since developed a life of its own, and Haggard did a lot to fuel the patriotic anti-hippie furor of his song, for example through relevant interviews in "Rolling Stone". Okie from Muskogee is not a misunderstood song like it is about Born in the U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen is.

One cannot help but notice that Merle Haggard leaned towards the right politically in the 1960s and 1970s, and it would be silly not to take notice. Edo Reents wrote in the “FAZ” that Haggard “must have been a right-wing man deep in his heart with a strong sympathy for the poor”; I don't know whether this can also be said for later decades, but it is absolutely true for the 60s and 70s. And this attitude is not that widespread in the United States. Strong sympathy for the poor and the workers. But also unconditional approval of democracy and the US version of “freedom”, for which we must also fight, also with the military. This attitude becomes even more decisive in Merle Haggard's song The Fightin 'Side Of Me, in which he insists that there are Americans who love their country the way it is, and he formulates a clear “warning” to the hippies and liberal America:

Runnin 'down the way of life
Our fightin 'men have fought and died to keep.
If you don't love it, leave it:
Let this song I'm singin 'be a warnin'.
If you're runnin 'down my country, man,
You're walkin 'on the fightin' side of me.

“Go over if you don't like something here! Otherwise you will get to know my fist ... “Sounds familiar?

When Haggard performed at the White House in 1973 at the invitation of Richard Nixon, he was playing, much to the delight of the host, who knew that this form of country music would secure his rule Okie from Muscogee and The Fightin 'Side Of Me:

This is an attitude that is not only found in Merle Haggard, but also in, for example, Johnny Cash. There she appears even more unadulterated, even more reactionary, for example in his song Ragged Old Flag. In the introduction to a concert performance of this song in a stadium, Cash first gives the patriots, saying that whenever he returns from Europe, he loves his country even more than before. And then Cash says: “I thank God for all the freedoms we've got in this country. (...) Even the rights to burn the flag, you know? I'm proud of those rights. ”His audience is speechless for a moment, then indignant, and an orgy of boos erupts over the country singer. The freedom to burn our American flag? I beg your pardon?!? But Cash silences the audience and continues: “Let me tell you some. We also got the right to bear arms. And when you burn my flag, I shoot you! ”We have the right to bear guns, and if you burn my flag, I'll shoot you! Deafening cheers.

A bitter scene that doesn't make the “man in black” shine in a good light. But what does that mean for the songs that Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard sing? Does anything change in the art of the really big ones if the singer / songwriter’s paradise is not without mistakes? We ourselves live in a thousand compromises and contradictions. But we expect the artists we adore to always do the right thing, or at least say and sing. Of course, it's nicer (and easier for us fans) when an artist, but also everyone in general, lives in a unity of word and deed. And it may be one of our provisional goals in life to align word and deed as closely as possible. But the work of a Merle Haggard is no less important because he also wrote one or the other dubious song, made one or the other strange statement.

And then I would doubt whether Merle Haggard was actually a “right man” all her life. He showed solidarity with the Dixie Chicks, who spoke out against Bush's war in Iraq, which was forced with lies, and who were then boycotted by thousands of US radio stations. In 2005, The Hag released his own anti-Iraq war song, "Let's get out of Iraq / And get back on track." In 2007, he sang a song in his concerts promoting the presidency of, well, Hillary Clinton began, and when Obama was President of the United States in 2008, Haggard wrote a poem called "Hopes Are High". In 2009 he finally sang the Woody Guthrie song Jesus christ for Michael Moore’s film Capitalism: A Love Story, with the lines

He said to the rich, "Give your money to the poor," (...)

He went to the preacher, He went to the sheriff
He told them all the same
"Sell all of your jewelry and give it to the poor,"

And Merle Haggard adds to these lines with full conviction:

When the patience of the workers gives away,
Would be better for the rich if they'd never been born.

Haggard may have been a conservative at one point or another. But he was always, throughout his life, the singer of the American working class, the lower class, the lower middle class, the loser of capitalism. And the melody of “freedom” that the American lower class likes to whistle is also a whistle in the forest: after all, there lurks a life out there that is even worse and more hopeless than the one you are currently living or facing withdraws to a dream world. Haggard was, along with Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, the hero of the "Outlaw Country". He was loved by the audience because of his honesty and straightforwardness, because of his attitude: "I'll tell you what the public likes more than anything: It's the most rare commodity in the world - honesty", he explained to the "Boston Globe".

Musically, Merle Haggard founded together with Buck Owens the "Bakersfield Sound", a guitar-driven, sharp and rough sound with rough edges - deliberately in contrast to the commercial sugar and cuddle porridge that has prevailed in Nashville since the 1950s, for which The Haggard only Had contempt. His influence on popular music is infinitely great, greater than the number of artists who have covered his songs: The Grateful Dead (their version of Mama Tried seen in the famous Woodstock movie), The Byrds (Sing Me Back Home), Gram Parsons, who adored Merle Haggard, Joan Baez, Elvis Costello or the Flaming Lips and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy. And country-infected albums like Bayou Country from CCR or Beggars Banquet of the Rolling Stones are difficult to imagine without the influence of Merle Haggard. Lynyrd Skynyrd sang in their Railroad song: "Well I'm a ride this train Lord until I find out / What Jimmie Rodgers and the Hag was all about". And Bob Dylan published his Workingman’s Blues # 2 on Modern Times in 2006, a reference to Haggard’s decades earlier Working Man’s Blues, in which The Hags closing line is quoted verbatim:

Meet me at the bottom, don't lag behind
Bring me my boots and shoes
You can hang back or fight your best on the front line
Sing a little bit of these workingman's blues

Merle Haggard was born on April 6, 1937, the son of poor migrant workers and died on April 6, 2016. In 2000, he signed a record deal with Anti, where he recorded the album “If I Could Only Fly” and a year later “Roots Vol . 1 ”published. In 2008 Haggard was diagnosed with lung cancer and had large parts of his lungs removed. He went on touring tirelessly, even quite that hard working manthat he sang about in many of his songs. In 2013, when I saw Merle Haggard in Austin, Haggard gave 88 concerts - at the age of 76! Haggard recorded his last song, Kern River Blues, on February 9, 2016, less than two months before his death. The song was released in May, and it's a farewell to a great singer and songwriter, but also a farewell to better times:

I'm leavin 'town tomorrow
Get my breakfast in the sky
(...)
There used to be a river here
Runnin 'deep and wide
Well, they used to have Kern River
Runnin 'deep and wide
Then somebody stole the water
Another politician song
(...)
Well, I'm leaving town forever
Kiss an old boxcar goodbye
Well, I'm leaving town forever
Kiss an old boxcar goodbye
I dug my blues down in the river
But the old Kern River is dry

Let's go back one last time to the Merle Haggard concert in Austin, Texas, on the warm, sunny March day in 2013. For me, who was the European agent for Townes Van Zandt for the last few years of his life, which was probably the greatest Anyway in my concert agent life it was impressive that Merle Haggard Townes' song Pancho and Lefty sang. And above all: that practically the whole audience sang along! Hardly anyone there in the makeshift rodeo hall who didn't know the song. Townes would have liked that his probably most famous song had become a real "folk song":

Living on the road my friend
What gonna keep you free and clean

And here we are again at that unfathomable American term "free", which sometimes sounds so hollow and sometimes can mean the world ...

Then the concert was over, no encores, as is customary in the USA. Haggard walked a little wobbly down the stairs from the stage, where the big white pick-up was waiting for him again. He got in, and then the white pickup truck drove around the stage past the audience, The Hag waved his hat in hand gracefully through the open side window, the rodeo speaker uttered some pathetic nonsense, and then Merle drove off Haggard out of the ring while the roadies were already starting to dismantle the revolving stage.

It was a good concert, but not one of the most fascinating of my life, more like a statement from a hard working musician who wrote some of the best songs ever written. Haggard wasn't a terrific performer, he lacked the presence, the aura of Johnny Cash. He was a wonderful singer who worked rather with understatement and fortunately was alien to pathos. He wasn't a “stage animal”. He said of himself that all he wanted was to go fishing and write songs. He told journalist Paul Hemphill that he wanted to be remembered “as a writer, somebody who did some living and wrote songs about what he knew. That's all. "

Merle Haggard's songs show that Haggard knew more about life than most of us. I wasn't the only one in the rodeo ring there in Austin, Texas who suppressed a few tears when the big old man disappeared.