Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Songs of Place: Okie from Muskogee

Here's my working hypothesis: Country songs that name places are usually full of nostalgic longing. The named place long ago faded in the rear view, and is only a dream now, or some vision at the bottom of whiskey glass. "Way down yonder on the Chatahoochee" and all that.

 Rocks songs, on the other hand, when they talk about place at all, are talking about someplace up ahead. Rock singers want to go somewhere, and that somewhere could be just as much a naive dream as the Country singer's vision. Example: "Are you going the San Francisco?"

Then there's Merle Haggard's Okie from Muscogee. What makes this unusual is that the singer puts himself in the shoes of one who never left, and isn't even dreaming of leaving. This song came along at a time when it seemed that just about everyone was going somewhere, and it seemed kind of wrong for the cultural moment, but there might have been a lot of people misjudging the cultural moment. I remember as a kid thinking I ought to laugh at the song's conceit, but the strength of Merle's writing, whether he's talking about sitting on death row, getting drunk so much he loses the love of his life, or just defending small-town pride in an era of upheaval, is that he makes you understand and respect his point of view.

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