- ABOUT US
In good ways and bad, one name has defined Oklahomans for most of our history. Follow this controversial word as it transforms from a Dust Bowl slur to a twenty-first century badge of honor.
By Brian Ted Jones
Published January/February 2016
Two Okies, Flossie Mae Harp and James Francis Haggard of Checotah, moved to California after their barn burned down in 1934. Around that time, the federal government’s Yearbook of Agriculture announced, “Approximately thirty-five million acres of formerly cultivated land have essentially been destroyed for crop production.”
A hundred million acres of North America had lost their topsoil; another hundred and twenty-five million were about to. For generations, Oklahoma had been a place where people could support themselves off the land if they knew how to farm and were tough enough to do it. That was over.
So when their barn burned down, Flossie and James didn’t have much of a reason to stick around Checotah and build another. They settled in Bakersfield, California, with their children. James got a job with the Santa Fe railroad and refurbished a boxcar into a home. On April 6, 1937, Flossie gave birth to a boy in that boxcar house. They named him Merle Ronald Haggard.
James died of a stroke when Merle was nine, and at twelve, the boy took up guitar. Flossie wasn’t around much—to support the family after James’ death, she took a job as a bookkeeper. Merle became rebellious. Flossie hoped for the best when she sent him to a juvenile detention center, but Merle’s attitude grew worse. He stole, wrote hot checks, and ran away to Texas. He was locked up, escaped, then absconded to Modesto, California, where he labored as a hay pitcher, a truck driver, a short-order cook, and an oil worker.
Merle returned to Bakersfield in 1951 and soon was jailed for truancy and petty larceny. He escaped and was caught again. The court declared him “incorrigible” and sent him to the Preston School of Industry, the euphemistic name for a high-security juvenile prison. Merle got out after fifteen months but went right back in after he beat up a local boy in a robbery attempt.
After Merle got out of Preston, he and a fellow musician named Bob Teague went to a Lefty Frizzell show at the Rainbow Gardens in Bakersfield. Merle went backstage and played a few songs. Lefty heard him and told the club management he would not sing unless Merle sang first. This was the big break: The audience liked Merle, and Merle started to get work as a musician.
He played nightclubs and worked on farms or in the oil fields during the day. He performed for three straight weeks on the Smilin’ Jack Tyree Radio Show and appeared on the local Bakersfield TV program Chuck Wagon in 1956. That same year, he married Leona Hobbs. The couple moved into the Haggard family’s old boxcar house.
There were money troubles. At the end of 1957, Merle and two other guys got drunk and tried to rob a restaurant. They misjudged the time, thinking it was three o’clock in the morning when it was only ten-thirty at night—the restaurant was still open for business. Merle escaped and was recaptured within a day. The court gave him fifteen years in San Quentin State Prison.
“Prison didn’t immediately lead Merle into rehabilitation,” wrote Stephen Thomas Erlewine in the All Music Guide to Country in 2003. He was fired from several prison jobs. He planned another escape, but the cooler heads of his fellow convicts prevailed. Nearly two years into his sentence, he learned Leona was pregnant by another man. He started up a gambling racket and a cellblock brewery.
“They caught me drinking some of my own beer,” Merle told Larry King in 2004. “So they took me and locked me up in a jail inside of San Quentin.”
This was solitary confinement, where Merle decided to turn his life around.
“I changed while I was there,” he said. “I made up my mind that that wasn’t where I wanted to be.”
He left solitary after seven days and went to work in the prison’s textile plant. He took high school courses. He even played in San Quentin’s country band. At a hearing in 1960, the parole board reduced his sentence from fifteen years to five. He left the prison, moved back in with Leona, and went back to work. He also began to play music again.
Bakersfield was a great place to start. The music scene was exploding around Buck Owens, the leading light of the emerging Bakersfield sound, who also was a Dust Bowl refugee from Sherman, Texas, less than twenty miles south of the Red River. In the 1960s, Buck scored eighteen top ten country singles including fourteen number-one hits in a row.
Merle followed Buck onto the country charts with hit singles like “Sing a Sad Song,” written by Wynn Stewart, another Depression-era refugee from southwest Missouri, and “Just Between the Two of Us” with Bonnie Owens, Buck’s ex-wife. In 1966, Merle had hits with “Swinging Doors,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” and “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.” He scored four number-one hits in a row from 1967 through 1968 and three in the final year of the decade. One of the last of these was “Okie from Muskogee.”
“Okie from Muskogee” hit radio in the fall of 1969, topped the country charts for four weeks, and managed to reach number forty-one on the Billboard Hot 100, sharing space with the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women,” “Suspicious Minds” by Elvis Presley, and “Come Together / Something” off the Beatles’ Abbey Road. The competition wasn’t exactly token.
“Okie from Muskogee” and the album of the same name won the Country Music Association’s Single of the Year and Album of the Year awards, respectively, in 1970. The legendary tune has been covered—sometimes ironically—by many artists including Leon Russell, the Beach Boys, and Jeannie C. Riley.
“Okie from Muskogee” is big and brash, but there’s a real pain at the heart of it. It’s about separation and resentment; more nakedly than any other pop song of the time, it addressed the disintegration of America’s postwar unity in the face of Vietnam, but in the voice of people from middle America rather than that of coastal elites. Released at the end of the “summer of love” in 1969, the song proudly opposes hippie tropes like drug use, free love, the burning of draft cards, long hair, beads, and Roman sandals.
“Okie from Muskogee” stands forthrightly on the side of the squares, on the side of football and moonshine, the side of “holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo.” And it stands firmly on the side of the Okies.
“Okie from Muskogee” took Okie back. Merle threw out the sense of the word as a slur, and what he left was pure pride. It’s a complicated pride, the pride of an “us” in “us versus them.” But that’s how history happens, how words change. To do that, Merle had to take the word away from every strikebreaker who’d ever spat it at a working person in California in the 1930s. To use the word Okie is to say, “Where’s the shame in being hungry or poor?”
“There ain’t none,” comes the answer—maybe the way Merle would say it, or Flossie Haggard, or Buck Owens, or Woody Guthrie. There’s no shame in being Okie, because there’s no shame in being people.
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