Merle Haggard‘s 1968 hit, “Sing Me Back Home” gives us three chords and the truth about compassion and the power of music. In it, we hear forgiveness and reconciliation, but with an unwavering certainty of outcome. There is clinging to life, but an acceptance of death. It is about the most effective two verses and a chorus out there for getting its emotional point across, and it contains one particular phrase of lyrics that, in my experience, is unsurpassed in country music for connecting music and meaning, and for driving a theme home with soul-gripping poignancy.
How’s that for setting expectations?
“Sing Me Back Home” is a ballad, but barely. The murder involved in it is implied, but not mentioned. The death in the song is a little less implied, but it’s an execution, not a murder, and is also off stage. I said at the very beginning of the blog that we were going to stretch the boundaries on the murder ballad genre when it made sense to do so. There’s good reason here, I think. If you’re concerned that I’m off the mark, though, I’ll bring in a song a little later in the week that fits the bill more clearly, and it will shed some light on how “Sing Me Back Home” fits into that often parched and stretched place that is the emotional world of the murder ballad.
It’s a musical short story of a condemned man on his way to execution. Haggard tells it from the perspective of a fellow prisoner and witness to the condemned man’s walk down the proverbial “Green Mile.” The prisoner-witness tells us that music, and in particular the songs of childhood memory, are the solace and spiritual point of refuge for the condemned man at the very end. The chorus is of the song is the condemned man’s last request.
Here’s the song as sung by Haggard. (Lyrics)
He’s just like you and me
What I marvel at the most in this song is its enormous compassion, particularly in light of the object of that compassion. Despite being largely implicit, it’s an element obvious to most listeners. Without making a big deal of it, Haggard summons us to compassion for a killer (death sentences for other crimes in the U.S. are exceedingly rare). Regardless of the crime, the singer does not pass judgment on the condemned man. But, no one alleges he’s innocent either. Both our judgment and his guilt are beside the point in these final moments. It’s a remarkable moment of artistic imagination that Haggard invites the listener to join. He has us right where we need to be before the second line of the first stanza is finished. We figuratively stand up in respect like all the rest.
Musician and producer Don Was emphasizes this aspect of compassion in the 45th minute or so of this documentary on Haggard’s life and career. It’s a long video, but a terrific portrait of Haggard, and develops a number of the themes we’re going to focus on this week.
Don Was: “It’s a really compassionate song about a guy who’s about to be executed. He’s not judging this guy at all. He’s saying he’s just like you and me. And I think this non-judgmental, compassionate approach, the respect for every man, I think that’s what Merle’s about.”
Haggard explains “Okie” differently at different points in his career, but the best account, as far as I can tell, is that the song started as kind of a lark. As Haggard’s tour bus (transporting, perhaps, a few illicit substances in the possession or use of Haggard’s band) passed through Muskogee, Oklahoma, he and a fellow band member came up with the song as a joke poking gentle fun at small town, heartland mindsets. Haggard’s family were themselves “Okies,” Oklahomans who had moved to California during the Depression in search of work.
“Okie’s” less than sincere beginnings were soon overwhelmed by the enthusiastic and non-ironic response of a conservative segment of working-class Americans eager to embrace something that pushed back against the psychedelic and anti-war counter-culture. “Okie from Muskogee” won numerous Country Music Awards. You could say that it earned Haggard at least three things in the political world as well: an invitation to support the Presidential candidacy of segregationist George Wallace, an invitation to perform at Richard Nixon’s White House, and a full pardon for his crimes from then Governor of California, Ronald Reagan. He wisely declined the first offer. He accepted the second. He has referred to the third as “the highest award I ever received.”
Oh, right. I haven’t explained that yet.
|San Quentin Prison, California|
It’s impossible to understand “Sing Me Back Home,” and much of Haggard’s career, without acknowledging that he served time in California’s San Quentin Penitentiary, among other detention facilities. While his prison record may have contributed to his “outlaw” mystique of a certain era, it’s clear in any number of interviews that he remains haunted by it, and is never inclined to celebrate it. It’s part of his appeal for many, perhaps, but it’s never been one that Haggard has embraced–which probably makes it all the more a component of his appeal.
Haggard had been something of a juvenile delinquent after his father died when Haggard was 9. He rode freight trains, and had served time in and escaped from several youth detention facilities. When, in his late teens, he drunkenly tried to break into a restaurant that wasn’t closed, he was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to San Quentin primarily because of his escape record. Haggard has suggested that the sentence was severe because he couldn’t afford a good lawyer–justice for poor people.
|Johnny Cash at San Quentin|
Haggard was at San Quentin on January 1st, 1958 for Johnny Cash’s performance there. He credits Cash’s concert with inspiring him to be a model prisoner and seek parole early. Later, after Haggard’s career took off, Cash was eager to introduce Haggard’s music to the wider public through his television show. He was also eager, far more eager than Haggard, to “out” Haggard as an ex-con. Cash thought it would help him. Haggard was not the only musician convict inspired by Cash’s prison performances, but his story is one of the happier ones. (Others were not able to make the transition to post-prison life quite as successfully.)
Here’s a duet performance of “Sing Me Back Home” from Haggard’s appearance on the Johnny Cash show, in promotion of Haggard’s album of Jimmie Rodgers covers. Whether or not what you hear is actually what they’re playing, this duet version looks like it starts out in A, modulating to D for Cash’s vocal range when he takes the lead. The introductory banter is a bit canned and, I think, dances around a frank acknowledgment of Haggard’s time in San Quentin.
Unlike “Okie,” “Sing Me Back Home” affirms an instant human solidarity and connection. We’re no longer distant from one another, and no longer distant from “the worst of the worst.” We’re called upon to find the things we have in common with this man who is about to pay the price.
There’s a song my mama sang
Oh, and back to that great line. In the second verse, “And I heard him tell the singers, ‘There’s a song my mama sang. Could you sing it once before you move along?'” This just might be the perfect country song lyric. The middle phrase has a descending melody line, returning to the root (or I) chord right after the word “mama.” I’m not an expert on the cognitive aspects of pairing music and words, but this line gets me, nearly every time when I sing it–with a lump in my throat induced by the combination of sentiment and melody.
I won’t analyze it to death. Give it a try. Sing the song. Try to live inside it, and feel the difference between that verse and the one before it. The melody is the same, but the emotional topography is not.
You can find resonances of similar sentiment in Haggard’s own “Mama Tried,” or similarly in Iris DeMent’s “Mama’s Opry.” (Dana Jennings’s book Sing Me Back Home for reminded me of the connection between DeMent’s song and Haggard’s.)
It’s an old joke that a good country song always has to refer back to “Mama,” but here the interplay is directly with the themes of death, guilt, and repentance. This picture will become more detailed, nuanced, and clear as we listen to a few more of Haggard’s classics this week. It’s also clear that this is a song just as much about the power of music as it is about those darker themes. Haggard compresses a lot of significant themes into just a few short words of lyrics and makes a song for the ages.
In the next post, I’ll review some other performances of “Sing Me Back Home.” I’ll round out the week with a short discussion of a true Haggard murder ballad, and how it helps unfold some of the themes of Haggard’s work more broadly.
Before we let this one go, I’ll post one more Haggard performance of the song. There are quite a few clips of his performances on YouTube, although many have some flaw or other for the purposes of presenting them here. (Incidentally, for such a short song, it’s surprising how many of them have Haggard jumbling the lyrics.) In any event, here’s a good one, reflecting in many ways Haggard’s developed relationship with the piece at a later stage in his career.
It’s outside our charter here at Murder Ballad Monday, but an entire book could easily be written about the cultural history of “Okie from Muskogee,” if it hasn’t already. Certainly a dissertation. From its ambiguous beginnings to its service as a musical catalyst for the culture wars of the late 60s and early 70s, to its ironic performance by a range of performers from the Byrds, Phil Ochs, and even Haggard himself.
Haggard wanted to release the song “Irma Jackson” after “Okie” to counterbalance the way that “Okie” (and by extension his career) had become a lightning rod for political and cultural conservatism. He was persuaded otherwise by the record company or another party. Instead, he built on the “Okie” reputation with “The Fighting Side of Me.” Haggard introduces “Irma Jackson” below, explaining that he couldn’t release it when he wrote it “because the time wasn’t right.” A lost opportunity. Like “Sing Me Back Home” in some ways, its revolution is on the inside–in the human connection–rather than serving as a direct anthem for reform. Nevertheless, the human connection might be more salient and enduring than a more political song.
But, it is a great song, and Haggard claims (at least in the track below) that it is his favorite, “because it tells it like it is.”
Lyrics to “Irma Jackson”But, “Okie” took root, and went all kinds of interesting places. Here’s Phil Ochs’ performance of “Okie”
Even Willie Nelson joins in the fun, although curiously after the marijuana verse…