"Merle Haggard meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people but to me he was THE songwriter of California. Not the California of Malibu, Silicon Valley or Beverly Hills but the California of Highway 99, migrant workers and the struggle to survive in the promised land. All the political ambiguity and one dimensional stereotypes aside, Mr Haggard was one of the giants of modern American Music."So said Dave Alvin, from roots rock/rockabillly band The Blasters, on Merle Haggard, who died on April 6.
For his part, Tom Waits, not just one of the greatest songwriters but one of the best writers in any form in modern America, noted about Haggard:
"He takes the lives of common folk who we had all stopped seeing and put them in songs and gave them a voice, and kept them alive ... their particular poetry can only be born out of hard times lived through and then remembered."You might think that any self-respecting left-wing magazine seeking to speak about -- if not give voice to -- the downtrodden might actually try to capture some of these points in any piece they ran on Haggard and what he represented.
In the case of US radical publication Jacobin you would be very wrong. So wrong, I wrote the bastards a letter. Bizarrely, it got no response, so I will include it below -- edited to increase the degree of spite and hatred I feel, as there is no point being polite now...
Dear Jacobin Magazine,
As you know, Merle Haggard, a giant of American country music, died on April 6. You decided, God only fucking knows why, to run a hostile, distorted and factually wrong article on this man who was a huge part of American popular culture (in quite contradictory ways).
Haggard's influence was massive, not just on country music but far wider. He was beloved by huge numbers of people, deeply respected by other artists across the popular music spectrum for his groundbreaking contributions, and he gave dignity and voice to some of the lowest of the low in our society -- prisoners.
How do you, as a respected left publication, respond? You publish one of the worst, most distorted hit pieces, combined with the most disgustingly staid, dogmatic Stalinist attitude to popular culture I have ever fucking read.
Honestly, "Merle's America", by Jonah Walters, comes across as absurd, outdated, should-never-be-heard-from-again Stalinist socialist realism.
I mean, if your thing is whinging that Haggard's songs about working people were not about them struggling for their "liberation", then just be fucking done with it and go buy the entire fucking back catalogue of that paradigm of pointlessness that is dull folk singers with acoustic guitars who sing of nothing else. (And no, in the interests of public health and safety I won't link to any such song, I will just note that whatever you think of the now politically degenerated ex-Smiths singer Morrissey, he did have a point when he sung: "I used to think if you had an acoustic guitar, it meant that you were a protest singer/Oh I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible".)
The insulting piece's factual errors or omissions are so many -- and significant -- as to question how the author felt he could write on this topic. Jonah Walters appears so ignorant as to be unaware of how ignorant he is.
Haggard was a contradictory figure with a shifting relationship to, and attitude towards, society -- one that evolved well beyond the two key songs the author highlights to prove he was just a reactionary (a redneck in the 60s, a Nixonite in the 70s, a Reaganite in the 80s, apparently...all actual evidence to the contrary conveniently ignored.)
Walters' picture just isn't true -- as a simple investigation of the commonly known facts shows, such as that provided by this blog post.
Walters notes Haggard's impoverished background as a child of "Okie" refugees -- the impoverished people who fled the Dust Bowl poverty during the great Depression and lived in terrible conditions in labour camps in places such as Bakersfield, California.
Haggard, like Buck Owens, became a major proponent of the "Bakersfield sound" in the 1960s -- a type of country music that was much rawer, harder-edged and less polished than the commercial country sound pushed by the Nashville establishment. It was a sound developed in Bakersfield's working-class bars.
Yet Walters managed to mention this only in passing -- as he does the decisive years Haggard spent as a young man in prison, serving a term for armed robbery.
Haggard first saw Johnny Cash while jailed in San Quentin in the early '60s, a gig that changed his life and convinced he could and should make a career in music. (Cash's prison shows have always struck me as a truly radical act -- to go to San Quentin and sing directly to the prisoners songs like "San Quentin" in which he condemns the prison and, to cheering crowds of San Quentin's victims, sings: "San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell/May your walls fall and may I live to tell".)
Walters fails to mention Haggard's multiple prison songs despite this being absolutely central to his life and his early music career.
Haggard wrote many songs about prison and its impacts. The article states that Haggard's two breakthrough hits were the right-wing "Okie" and "Fighting Side of Me", but actually he had already had a string of number one hits before then, and several were quite humanist prison songs.
The best example is "Sing Me Back Home" -- a major song the author misses entirely. It was released by Haggard in 1967, two year before "Okie". It was a number one hit in the country charts.
It is a true story from Haggard's time in San Quentin, involving the death penalty. There was a prisoner (known as "Rabbit") that Haggard knew who planned an escape and asked Haggard to join him. Haggard decided not to, Rabbit escaped and, after two weeks on the run, was captured again -- but not before he had killed a state trooper, for which he was sentenced to death.
The song is about the prisoners, including Haggard, watching him being lead out to be murdered by the state -- an event that deeply affected the future country star.
Haggard said: "Even though the crime was brutal and the guy was an incorrigible criminal, it's a feeling you never forget when you see someone you know make that last walk. They bring him through the yard, and there's a guard in front and a guard behind — that's how you know a death prisoner."
The song, while not explicitly political, is profoundly moving and deeply humanist. If you can watch Haggard singing it without being moved in the general direction of tears then... I don't know if I can trust you as a human being, you apparent fucking psychopath.
'I stood up to say goodbye like all the rest...' WHAT A FUCKING REACTIONARY ARSEHOLE!
And what he was is so far from the piece in Jacobin as to be ridiculous. The piece, for instance, bizarrely states: "The America Merle Haggard sang about was an ugly, indefensible place ... where history and politics remained untroubled by the presence of non-whites. "
Clearly the author knows nothing of Haggard's anti-racist songs. He must have no idea that Haggard wanted the B-side to his anti-hippie hit "Okie from Muskogee" to be "Irma Jackson" -- a song about inter-racial marriage at at time when it was still a hot issue in the South and among Haggard's fans who took him at face value over "Okie".
His record company overruled him on the understandable grounds it would upset his new, redneck, fan base. Haggard spent the next three years fighting to get the song released -- he finally won, and, of course, upset his right-wing fan base.
Wikipedia records: "According to American Songwriter, 'some conservatives who had flocked to 'Okie' were shocked by 'Irma Jackson', Haggard's pro-tolerance take on interracial romance', but Haggard was 'unfazed' by this."
But I mean who gives a fuck for such minor trivialities of an artist going to war with their record company for the right to release an anti-racist song at the time the country was on fire with huge struggles over racism, when his own fans tend to be based among the still-solidly racist sectors.
Obviously not worth mentioning. That just gets in the way of a fucking false, fake, bullshit projection of an artist that fits nothing more than the author's own prejudices, which he is clearly happy with coz he bothered to do zero research before spitting on the grave of a giant of popular music beloved by millions!
That is how Jacobin thinks the left should do popular culture is it? GOD FUCKING HELP US.
Haggard released other anti-racist songs, including a song in the late 70s called "The Immigrant" that was entirely pro-immigrant and hostile to racist attacks on them. Pointing out it is the "illegal" migrant labour that keeps the US economy going, Haggard tells the migrants: "Viva La Mexico, go where they let you go/And do what you can for the land."
He continues a bit later about the gall of the "gringo" complaining about migrants when "he stole this land from the Indian way back when..."
Yeah. What a racist piece of shit that Haggard was with his world vision "where history and politics remained untroubled by the presence of non-whites". Jonah Walters...
Walters highlights two songs of Haggard's -- songs that are undeniably right-wing and were hits in the late 60s -- "Okie" and "The Fighting Side of Me". The songs were aimed at anti-war protesters -- hippies especially.
"Okie" was clearly a joke that got taken far more seriously than Haggard intended -- though his comments over the years about how much he supported its message are contradictory. "Fighting Side" was a deliberate attempt to cash in on the popularity among rednecks for "Okie".
"Fighting Side" is unambiguously right-wing and actually threatens violence against those who "run down" the country Haggard loudly insists he loves. But Walters piece over-reaches itself when it tries to blame "Fighting Side" for contemporary country right-wing "patriot" Toby Keith's pro-war songs around time of the Iraq War.
In what is becoming something of a big fucking trend, Walters somehow fails to mention that at the same time as Keith was releasing his right-wing pro-war nonsense in the aftermath of 9/11, Haggard -- having moved a long way from the days of "Okie" -- was releasing songs against the Iraq War.
And actually, as terrible as the politics of "The Fighting Side of Me" are, it is nothing compared to how bad Toby Keith's song "Courtesy of the Red White and Blue" is, because not only is "Fighting Side" a better song musically, it contains a clear crack, a clear point at which, for all its bluster, the singer gives a sign of ... God forbid ... contradiction. This is when Haggard sings:
"An' I don't mind 'em switchin' sides,An' standin' up for things they believe in."You cannot imagine Toby Keith singing anything like that. Singing that he didn't "mind" anti-war protesters post 9/11 supporting the other side. Admitting they were "fighting for what they believe in".
Haggard's song is clearly hostile to anti-war protesters from a jingoistic perspective, yet is also not "pro-war" in the way Keith is when the 21st century country star sings: "we'll put a boot in your arse, it's the American way".
As objectionable as the politics of "Fighting Side" are, there is more going on here, with contradictions clearly working within Haggard that are absent in the mindless patriotism of Toby Keith.
To note this is not in any way to defend what was Haggard's most right-wing song -- which threatened violence to anti-war demonstrators. It is just to note the fact that Haggard was always more than, and better than, the politics of that song, and that the song itself contains the hints.
Haggard's songs like "Okie" and "Fighting Side" have to be understood in a certain context. "Okie" was a joke song that took off in an unexpected way. Haggard cashed in with "Fighting Side", but he was already trying to undercut his association with the Nixonite "Silent Majority" with songs like "Irma Jackson".
That is not to say Haggard disagreed with what he sung, just that he also wasn't a hardened reactionary either. His attitude appeared to be something along the lines of a contradictory "well a man has got to eat" -- cashing in while seeking to move to undercut being stuck in that corner. He tried to exploit the "silent majority" label and rebel against it simultaneously.
So, Haggard's political consciousness was contradictory. Was one Jonah Walters born with some sort of pure consciousness? Or, like everyone else, is his consciousness a moving thing?
If Walters has said things over his life that he would not, right now, wish to be held to, he probably won't be, as no one knows about them. Haggard, however, put his sentiments in songs that became hit singles, so he could never escape association with those views. This is despite the fact Haggard later described a song like "Okie" as a "documentation of the uneducated that lived in America at the time" (and he meant himself as much as anyone).
Walters makes the even more bizarre accusation that Haggard was a "hypocrite" or "maybe just confused" because he sung a line in "Okie" against marijuana, but later became a daily pot smoker and proud advocate for the drug. (The last film clip Haggard appeared in was the pro-marijuana song "It's All Going To Pot" with Willie Nelson, the video for which features the elderly Willie and Merle sharing joints.)
Maybe there is a different explanation than "hypocrisy". Maybe Haggard's views did not stand still. Maybe Haggard wrote a line against marijuana when he didn't know any better (which is Haggard's own explanation), and later had a totally different attitude towards the drug -- one he pushed, as even Walters admits, in public!
As to the idea in Walters' piece that Haggard sings of the working class as martyrs rather than in a context of a struggle for liberation -- well, that is how most working class people experience their condition. That is just a fact. And Haggard's songs gave them dignity.
This also applies to his songs about being heartbroken. Yes, there is a tendency for them, as Walters notes, to play into sexist stereotypes that reduce women to the role of heartbreakers or the heartbroken, but that is hardly unique to Haggard. It is not even unique to country music, but popular culture in general. By all means criticise it -- but don't imagine that it is any particular argument that Haggard was nothing more than a Reaganite reactionary.
And Haggard's "heartache" songs were also frequently really well-written songs. For instance, a Haggard classic like "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" was a genuinely original take on the hardly original country music trope of the heartbroken character drinking hard in some dive bar.
In Haggard's tale, not only is the singer heartbroken, in a bar and drinking to forget... but worse... far worse... the fucking booze has stopped working. What an unspeakable nightmare!
'The one true friend I thought I found... tonight the bottle let me down!' May I never experience such horrors.
Yes, I know. It is not about workers storming barricades or whatever visions help Jonah Walters sleep better at night, but it is a well-written angle on the "heartbroken and drunk" trope to which many people can actually relate.
(It was also cleverly re-imagined by young, contemporary country singer Lydia Loveless in her 2014 track "Head" — on the surface seemingly just a song about getting laid, but in reality a bold, sexually-explicit updating of Haggard's "Tonight The Bottle". No doubt Walters doesn't care for it -- after all, it may be a young woman vacillating between proudly owning her sexuality and dealing with heartache and alcohol abuse, but the track also features absolutely zero examples of a worker seizing their workplace and demanding its nationalisation under workers' control, so like whatever.)
Haggard's nostalgic songs for the "good old days" are also not as automatically reactionary as Walters says. The fact is, life for most people has gotten worse -- the "good times" have long felt over. The idea that Haggard's songs are reactionary for noting this ignores the facts that he tended to be either silent in terms of who is to blame, or contradictory on blame and consequence.
For all the contradictions and twists in Haggard's politics and their public presentation, he gave some of the lower ranks of the working class -- such as those jailed -- some real dignity. For all sorts of cultural reasons, the appeal of Haggard was often largely to the lower ranks of the white working class, but unless you think the lower ranks of the white working class are nothing more than scum, so who cares... that is surely still worth doing.
Plus, as Dave Alvin noted, he also had a strong appeal among migrant workers, too.
Maybe, rather than the ignorant and insulting muck Jonah Walters wrote, Jacobin could start by taking a lead from left-wing country singers like Steve Earle or Kris Kristofferson -- whose attitudes to Haggard are very different.
Or take a lead from those singer songwriters who know something of the craft, like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits.
Dylan, who pointed out he was at the opposite end of the "cultural wars" to Haggard in the late 60s, pointed out that Haggard had shifted and was with "the counter culture" in later years. Dylan said: "Merle Haggard has always been as deep as deep gets. Totally himself. Herculean. Even too big for Mount Rushmore."
And as Waits said: "He takes the lives of common folk who we had all stopped seeing and put them in songs and gave them a voice, and kept them alive."
Not "liberating" enough? Well maybe another Tom Waits quote is valid here:
"The world is a hellish place, and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering. It cheapens and degrades the human experience, when it should inspire and elevate..."Haggard's writing inspired and elevated. If only the same could be said of Jonah Walters. I appeal to Jacobin to never, ever run anything as stupid and factually wrong as this again.
I can only conclude that the author is one of a specimen of fucking middle-class university educated hipster "to cool for country music like LOL those cowboy hats" privileged pieces of shit who knows nothing about what they talk about once they move beyond their comfort zone of soft, comfortable rubbish of the sort pumped into late monopoly capitalism's empty void like Mumford and Sons or Bon Ivor.
And maybe that judgement is a little unfair... but I will bet my life it is nowhere near as unfair as the deeply absurd hit piece the author did on Merle Haggard that your magazine chose to fucking publish.
Thank you for taking the time to fucking ignore my letter.