Actually, I’m not from Muskogee, Okla., where “we don’t smoke marijuana” and “even squares can have a ball,” as country singer Merle Haggard celebrated. Still I can imagine being from there as I ponder the history of the version Haggard first sang, what he came to make of it and what became of it over the years since he first wrote the lyrics (with Roy Edward Burris) during the Vietnam War.
It’s complicated. Last year for the first time I heard Kris Kristofferson, surely closer to the hippie Haggard mocks in the song than to a square, in live concert. Performing with The Strangers, the band Haggard founded and toured with until his death in 2016, Kristofferson sang of the hippie-like values and addictions Haggard chastised.
Kristofferson’s songs included, yes indeed, Haggard’s famous “Okie from Muskogee.” Because they also live in me, riven by paradoxes in my roots and life trajectories, the contradictions filled me with a certain rapture. They live in me as I remain committed to pacifism yet will never forget how moved I was by the stories of U.S. veterans I met while dean at Eastern Mennonite Seminary.
By the end of his life it seemed clear that Haggard, once a prisoner pardoned for burglaries by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, was singing the song within layers of complexity I could never claim fully to plumb yet which intrigued. The Okie (which he only kind of became after his family migrated from California during the Great Depression) who seemed to bash anyone who smoked marijuana had battled addictions himself.
He had been jailed for burglary before the pardon, and anyone who hasn’t heard Haggard sing “Amazing Grace” at San Quentin, where he had been imprisoned, hasn’t fully experienced grace. This version is ragged, rough, and raw — throbbing with awareness of how “wretches” (an “Amazing Grace” lyric I rejected when younger, before I grew old enough to recognize myself in it) are saved.
So this is who sings about being from Muskogee. And in his singing so many layers of meaning, he reminds what richness imperfect people can offer if true to their truths rather than addicted to offering fake truths.
I and we needn’t agree with Haggard on every detail to grasp that here is a real human being, someone who has traveled through vicissitudes with integrity, acknowledging and even magnifying them when called for. Here is no flattening of meaning but ever deeper exploration of it.
And so as Haggard aged, his songs became richer, their subtexts more resistant to simple interpretations — such that it made sense for a Kristofferson concert audience to break into applause as “Okie from Muskogee” launched.
We were sitting, that night, in a country in which some loved “only squares can have a ball” and others loved the possibility that Haggard’s song is at least partly the satire Kristofferson may think it to be. Yet the song transcends the divisions. The animosities that spawned it in the 1960s as war raged have perhaps not so much healed as mutated.
Interpretations and responses to “Okie” have mutated as well. Some see it as one more inspiration for continuing the cultural battles. But as I ponder Kristofferson singing Haggard’s song as his own life fades and with the band Haggard’s death left behind, I find myself living at least briefly in a world in which only squares can have a ball and hippies sing together with grace that amazes.
Michael A. King is publisher of Cascadia Publishing House and blogs at Kingsview & Co., cascadiapublishinghouse .com/KingsviewCo.