Friday, May 06, 2016

Sing Me Back Home


Sing me back home with a song I used to hear
Make all my memories come alive
Take me away and turn back the years
Sing me back home before I die

Merle Haggard was a real American.  At its best, his music was folk art, Americana poetry, each song capturing a snapshot of his people’s story.  There was nothing phony about Haggard, and his music and songwriting showed what country music can be—honest and authentic, gritty and harsh, soulful and touching.  His work was “roots music” before there was a term for it, music that displayed all the pain and joy, the pride and regret, the sins and the virtues of his people and their hardscrabble, Dust Bowl lives.  The word artist has become a particularly trite clich√© used of every pop entertainer who comes along these days, but in Haggard’s case, such a description was appropriate.  Merle Haggard once said that what the public really wanted was the “most rare commodity in the world—honesty,” and that’s what he gave us.  “The Hag” was dubbed the “poet of the common man,” a working-class boy who went wrong and found his way back through his music.  He was 79 when he passed away of pneumonia in Palo Cedro, California.

Before he was born, Merle Haggard’s family left Oklahoma in 1935 after a fire destroyed their barn.  Jim Haggard and his wife, Flossie, took their family west to Oildale, California, following the path of many other Okies, Arkies, and Texans who were forced to migrate during the Great Depression.  Jim found work as a carpenter for the Santa Fe Railroad and, like many others in his situation, converted an old boxcar into a home for his family.  Merle’s sister, Lilian Haggard Rae, remembered the old house fondly as a “wonderful home to live in,” with thick walls that kept the house cool in summer and warm in winter.  In those days, Oildale was a collection of camps and makeshift homes near Bakersfield, the town with which Merle and his music would be strongly associated, just as images of train engines, boxcars, and fugitive lives would be.  Like his sister Lilian, Merle was attached to the old place, an attachment evident in songs...

Jim Haggard played fiddle and guitar at schoolhouse dances and other social events back in Oklahoma, and Merle thankfully inherited his father’s love for music, though he later recalled it was his mother who showed him “a couple of chords” on an old guitar his brother had brought home, the boy teaching himself thereafter.  Merle was close to his father, and Jim Haggard’s death from a brain tumor when Merle was nine nearly wrecked the boy’s life.  Flossie Haggard, a devout member of the Church of Christ, got a job as a bookkeeper to support the family, while a distraught Merle rebelled.  Merle felt the tug of those rail cars rumbling by and hopped on a freight train when he was just 11 years old.  He made it to Fresno before he was picked up by local authorities and sent back home, but from then on the rebel child was often truant.  Petty crime followed.  Merle was in and out of juvenile detention centers, escaping numerous times, only to be thrown back in.  The restless spirit that had stirred in the boy while watching those trains pass by his boxcar home would turn up in his music in songs like “Rambling Fever” and the hobo anthem “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am.”

Writing bad checks and stealing cars caught up with him in 1957, and he was arrested for burglary.  At 20, Merle Haggard was in San Quentin.  As he told the story later, another prisoner nicknamed “Rabbit” planned an escape attempt but advised Merle, who was playing in a country band in the prison, not to take part, as he had a future with his music.  Rabbit killed a state trooper in the escape attempt and wound up on death row, an incident that surfaced later in “Sing Me Back Home.”

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