When country legend Johnny Cash played the White House in 1972, President Richard Nixon specifically asked The Man in Black to play his favorite anti-marijuana song - 'Okie from Muskogee' by Merle Haggard, who was born 80 years ago today. But the joke might have been on Nixon because Haggard later said that the song is actually a satire of Americans who were uptight about marijuana and other liberal issues in the 1960s.
Haggard wrote 'Okie from Muskogee' in about 15 minutes, but he ended up spending the rest of his career explaining its meaning because Nixon and many, many other Americans got the wrong idea about Haggard's biggest hit. They saw lines like "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee" and "We don't let our hair grow long and shaggy" as an endorsement of conservative values. But that wasn't the point of the song.
"We wrote it to be satirical originally," Haggard said in 1970. "But then people latched on to it, and it really turned into this song that looked into the mindset of people so opposite of who and where we were."
But some of his peers weren't fans of the song. Cash was wary of playing the song because it had become a "lightning rod for anti-hippie sentiment," to use his words. In contrast, Kris Kristofferson played 'Okie' onstage during a 1972 concert in New York City, but he prefaced the song by saying, “With apologies to our good friend Merle Haggard, who is neither a redneck or a racist, he just happens to be known for probably the only bad song he ever wrote."
Haggard himself once said that he regretted writing the song.
"Sometimes I wish I hadn’t written Okie," he said in 1990. "Not that I’m ashamed of it. I’m not sure but what bothers me most is the people that identify with it. There is the extremity out there. I don’t know. It made people forget that I might be a much more musical artist than they give me credit for. I was indelibly stamped with this political image - this political, musical spokesman, or whatever. I had to play that song every night for 18 years. And sometimes, out of a little bit of rebellious meanness, you know, I say I’m not going to do it. But very seldom. Your own songs become like living creatures. They are like children. They are individuals. You forgive them. God dang, you fall back in love with ’em, you know?”
Haggard's opinion of 'Okie' changed over the years, and he offered many conflicting interpretations of the song. (For a full recap, check out this article from The Telegraph.) But one thing that remained consistent was that he had changed his views about marijuana.
"At the time I wrote 'Okie From Muskogee,' I didn't smoke," Haggard told Men's Journal in 2015. "I had been brainwashed like most of America about what marijuana would and wouldn't do. I thought it was responsible for the flower children walking around with their mouths open. It was not so. But if a guy doesn't learn anything in 50 years, there's something wrong with him. I've learned a lot about it, and America has, too."
And nothing epitomizes that change in perspective quite like playing the song onstage with Willie Nelson, which cemented the song's status as musical satire. Meanwhile, Haggard will live on as a cannabis icon once his line of cannabis strains - called Merle's Girls - hits the shelves in Colorado.
Banner image: facebook.com/merlehaggard