Phil Ochs, radical iconoclast that he was, had an almost perverse fondness for singing “Okie from Muskogee.” To him, it was simply a good topical protest song. So what if the lyrics were somewhat arrogant and intolerant, and the work of a redneck from one of the “red states.” Phil was born in El Paso, after all, and his early influences included country singers, especially Faron Young. And where, outside of a broadcast of a baseball game in China, would you ever hear the phrase "pitching woo?"
I can’t say that Merle Haggard was one of my favorites, or others in the outlaw bunch (including Waylon and Willie) or the California crowd (Buck Owens). Still, he was a prolific songwriter, a vivid presence on stage, and he stubbornly kept going until pneumonia forced him to cancel shows a few months ago. He died on his birthday, April 6th, at the age of 79. With Phil finding such pleasure in him, I also got some kind of a kick from the “Okie” song. Of course I tended to listen to Phil’s version of it, and save my country listening time for Johnny Cash, George Jones, and the West Coast C&W/rocker Gary Alan among others.
Oh yes...Haggard was actually born in Oildale, California. His people did come from Oklahoma, but as many did (go read 'Grapes of Wrath,') they moved West to make a living. Many picked produce for low wages, but Merle picked at the guitar and...well, picked up a three year sentence for robbery. Yep, he was an authentic outlaw. While in San Quentin he saw Johnny Cash perform, and that inspired him to pursue the honky tonk lifestyle, and perfect his talents in local Bakersfield clubs. His first big hit was "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive" in 1966. At that time, on the East Coast, Phil was a hot Elektra folk star playing Carnegie Hall with topical material.
On March 27, 1970 Phil returned to Carnegie Hall for two scheduled performances. Now on A&M, and having recorded several critically acclaimed albums that didn't sell too well, he decided to try something radical. This would be the infamous "Gold Suit" show (released in single-disc truncated form by A&M only in Canada as "Gunfight at Carnegie Hall"). Fans were perplexed by Phil wearing some kind of Elvis suit, rambling about how Elvis was the king and could change things if he’d only become political. They detested Phil’s weird cover versions of everything from Buddy Holly to, Elvis, to Nat King Cole's "Mona Lisa" to, yes, “Okie from Muskogee.” The disaster ended with fans demanding their money back. A frustrated Phil obliged them by smashing his fist against the box office window.
But…he had a second show to do. Pissed off, bleeding, but determined to get his message across, he took to the stage yet again. Looking back on it, “The Night of the Cut Thumb,” was a triumph. Learning from his mistakes, Phil took the time to explain what he was up to. With some wry monologues (“America is a Cunt…”) and coaching the crowd to keep an open mind, the show was a fine mix of nostalgia (Holly and Presley), political humor, beautiful ballads, and stinging proteset songs. And that included that prickly number “Okie from Muskogee,” your download below.