Merle Haggard, “Okie from Muskogee”

Okie from Muskogee
Merle Haggard
1969

Written by Roy Edward Burris and Merle Haggard

“Okie from Muskogee” is an ode to simple American living, a joke at the expense of the common man or a political protest geared towards angering the counterculture of its time, depending on the viewpoint of the listener.

Haggard, dubbed “the poet of the common man,” provided a different outlook of both the social and political environments of the late 1960s when he, along with Ray Burris wrote “Okie from Muskogee. Despite its strong undercurrent of patriotism, the song is often viewed as a protest song. With the Vietnam War prompting many American to protest, Hag’s trademark tune became a rallying cry for those who were living in those times of conflict and was viewed as a song against the protesters of the war and their disrespect for the soldiers. It has also be considered to be a reflection of the different lifestyles and social conditions that marked the late 1960s.

But simply, Merle Haggard attempted to write about life in small town America and their traditional values. Speaking to an audience that never would have used LSD, rebelled against authority figures or grown their hair into “shaggy messes” (as the song spelled out), “Okie” helps to express their peaceful, tranquil routines. As Haggard would say,

“It started out as a joke. We wrote to be satirical originally. But then people latched onto it, and it really turned into this song that looked into the mindset of people so opposite of who and where we were.”

Simply, Haggard’s idealistic look at the people from his hometown was purely a valentine to the common folk and a recognition of those like his father (who moved the family to Muskogee from California during Haggard’s childhood) who took pride in freedom and their chosen lifestyles.   Haggard sums it up in the chorus, “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.”

“Okie from Muskogee” immediately earned the attention of the country music audience when released in late September 1969. The Haggard classic, reached #1 and stayed there for four weeks in the fall of 1969. The song was named the Country Music Association Single of the Year in 1970, and stood as one of Haggard’s five wins that evening. The original lyrics are on display at the Smithsonian Institution and a copy of the song is part of a time capsule on the moon. President Richard Nixon even asked for Haggard to perform the song at the White House.

All of these achievements are a testament to the truth in the song, despite its myriad meanings. Ultimately, “Okie from Muskogee” asked its fair share of questions of the audience and created a commentary within the country music community and beyond that still echoes today.

“Okie From Muskogee” is the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.

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14 Comments

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14 Responses to Merle Haggard, “Okie from Muskogee”

  1. Excellent write-up. I love this song.

    As this series continues, I imagine Haggard will have several entries. He has so many classic singles.

  2. I agree, Kevin.

    I’ll shamelessly admit something here: Until my cross-country drive from Seattle to Nashville, I hadn’t owned a Merle Haggard album. I bought the single disc “Hag: The Best of Merle Haggard” and proceeded to play it a lot as I drove across the country. It has pretty much all the ‘Hag hits’ one could want although I’m sure it is lacking a lot.

  3. PeterNo Gravatar

    Recently caught the Man at a Casino up here in Canada and when an audience member yelled out for this one, the Hag seemed a bit bemused but still gladly played it for him, tho I got the impression he doesn’t do it much anymore. Oh and he changed Muskogee to Muskoka to reflect the part of Ontario we were in at the time

  4. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    Merle is the man! I love this song too.

  5. I have heard this song several times now and it still leaves me cold.

    I am from the UK and my only direct experience of American culture is as a tourist.
    Maybe that makes a difference.

    I thought I was pretty much up to speed with American cultural references. However, I had not have a clue what “Okie From Muskogee” was referring to on first couple of listens. Of course, it is spelled out in full at the end and I eventually got that one.

    Even now I can’t remember what “Old Glory” and “white lightning” are.

    Another difficulty for me with this, and a lot of so called “classic songs” is the high expectation you have when the first time you get to hear a song is as a part of some collection of the greatest country songs of all time.

    I, perhaps mistakenly, expect to appreciate these songs greatness immediately. Needless to say I am more often than not disappointed.

    In a way I think it is quite a healthy thing that I don’t get “Okie”.

    I find it a little alarming just how easy I find it to get the sentiment of something like Alan Jackson’s “Small Town Southern Man”. Although my own life, I thought, couldn’t be more removed from the one he describes.

    The other issue I have with “Okie From Muskogee” is this:
    It is fine to be proud of your own culture and way of life but this song seems to be, albeit indirectly, taking a shot at another equally valid and flourishing culture and way of life.

    Thanks Blake for putting this song into a bit more context for me.

    Maybe I am taking what is supposed to be a fun song to seriously.

    I wish I could happily sing along with this one, maybe one day!

  6. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    It was the ears of the listeners that determined the meaning of the song

    The follow up “Fighting Side of Me” zeroed in on the more serious elements of ‘Okie’

  7. Erik NorthNo Gravatar

    I don’t know of too many artists who could be so strongly defined by one or two songs the way Merle has been–both with “Okie” and “The Fightin’ Side Of Me.” Both songs are claimed by those on the political right as slaps against those who protest the wars we fight or live lives they don’t approve of.

    And the right often claims Merle as one of their own in terms of political ideology because of those two songs, which Merle has said is not very accurate. For instance, he is not exactly a fan of the Iraq war. So it really goes to show that one cannot judge a musician’s beliefs only on the basis of the songs he or she writes or sings, let alone two songs that were written during a period of extreme social and political turbulence in which America was divided in a way that hadn’t been seen since the Civil War.

  8. PartridgeNo Gravatar

    I think other artists tried to cash in with similarly themed songs during that era. I have “It’s America Love It or Leave It” by Ernest Tubb and “Where Have All Our Heroes Gone” by Bill Anderson. Neither had much of an impact. As a young liberal, I found these songs somewhat amusing. Ernest Tubb sang “If things don’t go their way, they can always move away, that’s what democracy means anyway.”

  9. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    It’s interesting to see how things really haven’t changed much.

  10. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    “where Have All Our Heroes Gone” came out about a year after Okie and really wasn’t about the same thing. Whereas Hag was somewhat targeting the anti-war movement, Anderson was speaking of the general malaise in the nation

    Ms Ward is right though, things haven’t changed much – the right and left still distrust each other, refuse to believe that the other side is sincere in their beliefs, and are ignorant of merits of the other side’s positions.

  11. Matt and JoshNo Gravatar

    Okie means Oklahoma @Jim O

  12. Prince FielderNo Gravatar

    Go Brewers we’re gunna go all the way. i love old music even though im black!

  13. I believe this song, in a way, voiced some of his displeasure with how things were in America at the time. However, after recently attending one of his concerts, Merle gave the background to the song. As most people know, Merle Haggard is from Bakersfield, CA, but his dad was from Oklahoma. He said he wrote the song for him.

  14. SeanNo Gravatar

    I’m not sure how you think this is an idealistic valentine when you quote haggard as saying he wrote it to be satirical. It wasn’t until after the fact, when the fans interpreted it as being sincere, that he thought differently about the song. When it becomes sincere then to me it loses its edge and just becomes one of a million songs about southern pride and a knee jerk anti liberal, anti hippie song. Lame.