Thursday, 22 July 2010

Saluting Merle Haggard - The Poet Of The Common Man

There was a great BBC documentary on BBC4 last week about the mighty Merle Haggard.  You can still find it on iPlayer here:

Greats like Keith Richards, John Fogerty and Kris Kristofferson (who I'm looking forward to seeing this Wednesday) were paying tribute to a man rightly described as a 'Poet Of the Common Man'.  People like the Byrds and the mighty Gram Parsons were also hugely inspired by Haggard in the 1960s.

One contributor described Haggard as a man who spoke for those people who drove trucks, dug up roads and poured coffee for customers in diners.  Relentlessly blue collar, with one of the greatest songwriting oeuvres of them all and a life story that is authentic and dramatic as you can get.

Haggard early life was straight out of Steinbeck - the child of poor farmers from Oklahoma, who made their way to California, as per the Joads in the Grapes of Wrath, in search of promised riches and in an escape from the poverty.  Of course, what they found, as did the Judds, was even more extreme poverty and a time when the Government didn't help the poorest in society.  Haggard sings about the poverty that affected his family beautifully and hauntingly in 'Hungry Eyes.  The lyrics are almost as powerful as music gets:

A canvas covered cabin in a crowded labour camp 
Stand out in this memory I revived; 
Cause my daddy raised a family there, with two hard working hands 
And tried to feed my mama's hungry eyes.

He dreamed of something better, and my mama's faith was strong
And us kids were just to young to realize
That another class of people put us somewhere just below;
One more reason for my mama's hungry eyes.

A young Haggard ended up in prison.  Haggard said in the documentary that the justice system is weighed heavily against poor people in the US and he was one of the poor people who fell through the tracks.  He fell through the tracks in a big way - ending up in San Quentin.  His time in prison certainly delivered plenty of memorable songs - one of the most moving was 'Sing Me Back Home', about a fellow inmate being taken to death row.

After seeing Johnny Cash perform in San Quentin, Haggard decided that he was going straight and becoming a singer.  He brought to the world of music an earthiness and a beauty in his lyrics that is seldom matched.  Unceasingly singing from the worldview of the working man, he sums up blue collar uncertainties in a way that few other artists can manage.  Check out 'If We Make It Through December':

His influence on the counter culture was minimised when he wrote 'Okie From Muskogee'.  A song many have taken as deeply ironic (Haggard claims it was written about his father's generation) but which the Nixon and Reagan right took to their hearts.  Kristofferson famously said that it was a tragedy that Haggard was best known for the only bad song he had ever written.

If the right in US politics wanted to use Haggard as a poster boy, they would have been deeply disappointed.  His attacks on George W Bush and the War in Iraq were unstinting.  Haggard was critical of the Iraq War and critical of the erosion of freedom under Bush, as Chris Willman makes clear in the excellent Rednecks and Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music.  Haggard wrote one of the most thoughtful songs to come out of the entire Iraq disaster, with 'Rebuild America First':

Like many greats, Haggard is a mountain of contradictions.  Composing songs of genius and forever running from his demons.  We should all, though, be saluting this 'Poet Of The Common Man'.

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