September 1, 2008
Okie from Muskogee
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.