#1072: 1969, Merle Haggard, Hungry Eyes

by Jackie_South on April 6, 2016

Country legend Merle Haggard sadly died today, on his 79th birthday, from pneumonia complications. Somehow, we have got to song 1072 without a song by the Hag, and so this tribute is well over due.

Haggard often gets a bad rap from the left: his most iconic song, Okie from Muskogee about a conservative Oklahoman view of hippies and anti-war protests made him the poster boy for Nixon’s moral majority, and whilst the case is often made that the song is partly tongue-in-cheek (by Merle himself at times) other songs were less ambiguous in their socially conservative outlook.

But this is to forget that Haggard is also the voice of blue collar America (listen to Workin’ Man Blues – on my shortlist for this tribute), and that his record label stopped him releasing songs with a more liberal aspect (they thought that Irma Jackson, a song about interracial love, would get him lynched and delayed its release by three years). The far from conservative Gram Parsons tried to get Haggard to produce his first album. Whilst Okie had the line “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee” that was certainly not true of the real life Haggard, who last year recorded a video with veteran stoner Willie Nelson for It’s All Going To Pot showing the pair smoking reefers.

Haggard was one of the stars of Outlaw Country, along with Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. Unlike the other four, his claim to outlawhood came long before his music career.

He spent most of the 1950s in jail – deciding to go straight when a friend of his ended up being executed after killing a policeman after escaping jail, and seeing a route to do it when he watched Johnny Cash’s performance in San Quentin as an inmate there. And that brings me to another aspect of Haggard’s music: heartbreaking tales of a life inside and as an ex-criminal told through personal experience. That execution is played out in Sing Me Back Home, his friend’s request to Haggard as he took his last walk from death row, Branded Man tells how reformed criminals can never truly escape their past.

All of those songs mentioned could have featured today. Instead (given the nature of our blog) I have gone for his song about being a kid growing up in the Forties to parents who had left Oklahoma to settle California and the family’s struggle with extreme poverty. It was part of a phenomenal output in 1969, a year when he released no fewer than six albums.

Mama never had the luxuries she wanted
But it wasn’t cause my daddy didn’t try.
She only wanted things she really needed;
One more reason for my mama’s hungry eyes.

But this goes further than the sentiments of Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors. This is not just about the family’s sacrifices – Haggard rips up the American Dream in his second verse about a dream unfulfilled. And he casts blame too:

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

Another class of people put us somewhere just below? Those are not the words of any type of conservative. They are definitely the words of a complicated but authentically working class icon.

Merle Haggard, Rest In Peace.

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