My great-grandparents loved music. When I look through old sepia-toned pictures from hog-killing day—here’s one of my great-uncles dangling a fat pig into a 55-gallon caldron of boiling water—I always see a guitar or two in the background. The natural rhythms of life, of the year, were marked by celebrations.
There were luxury items to be found in that old shotgun house: a record player and a radio from the furniture store. The radio’s job was to broadcast the Grand Ole Opry into the living room The record machine’s was to play the Carter Family and the Singing Brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers—Ralph Peer’s prolific prodigies who made a killing for RCA singing about poverty, the Gospel, John B. Stetson hats, muleskinners, chemistry with copper kettles, and Hobo Bill’s last ride.
The music—“folk” back then, after a while “country”—resonated with a massive number of folks who were (and are) American, yet had their own unique cultures and traditions and histories that set them apart. In the late 1920’s and early 30’s, these people really knew a man named Ramblin’ Bob, who used to steal, gamble, and rob. They actually understood the betrayal that would make you want to buy you a shotgun with a great, long, shiny barrel. They planned on taking a trip on the old Gospel ship.
They were not a monolithic monoculture, however. Among them was great diversity because of their connections to particular places. After all, there was peach-picking time in Georgia, apple-picking time in Tennessee, cotton-picking time in Mississippi, round-up time in Texas. Yet, at the same time, they had many common traits. They were largely Celtic, with a little Indian blood from somewhere in the line, although they didn’t think of themselves that way, as the self-conscious purveyors of “Cracker Culture.” They simply were what they were. They’d been here since colonial times, fought alongside Yankees in big wars, and against them in one. They were low-church Protestants, believed in heaven and hell, sin and forgiveness, the “Old Bible”—their speech was inflected with King James—and were fiercely loyal to family. As Andrew Lytle’s A Wake for the Living testifies, there was always a little crazy around them, even inside them. Every family was capable of producing a preacher-boy, or a night-rider, or a soldier, and all of them were farmers.
Above all, they valued liberty, but not in some abstract, ideological sense. They wanted to be left alone so they could work, so they could earn enough to make things better for their loved ones. The liberty they desired was indeed ordered—ordered toward what we call the Permanent Things, and conversely, in rebellion against them. This did not mean that they assumed they were the only Americans who believed in or upheld the Permanent Things. To borrow again from Mr. Lytle, by way of my late friend and mentor Tom Landess, they weren’t inclined to think about Other People.
How did they come to be this way? Not from reading political essays or listening to politicians. Sure, they’d vote for whoever might be most likely to make things better, but they looked down on those rich, powerful people, mostly not out of jealousy, but because they perceived that those people didn’t work hard and earn what they had. And no, they never once mentioned or heard of or cared about any “Protestant Work Ethic” as such; they just knew the demands of justice. You string up a killer; you respect your parents; you work hard for what you need; you’re thankful for what you get. And these, like all other Permanent Things, were passed to them in their mothers’ milk, through conversation, story, scripture, sermon, and especially through song. Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied.
Great-Grandpa and Great-Grandma were poor enough to qualify for FDR’s Dyess Colony, same as Johnny Cash’s parents. The Colony was an experiment in socialism carved out of 15,000 acres of the Arkansas Delta, the blessing of Washington Democrats and the New Deal: forty acres, a mule, a horse, a shotgun house, a barn, a cooperative program, the central town “wagon wheel” with the co-op store, a church, a meeting hall, later a theater. The men had to participate in public works-projects (like digging ditches to drain fields) in addition to keeping up their cotton-and-subsistence farms, and were on the hook to pay back the government as soon as they turned a profit. My grandpa was little when they moved in, and he was little when they moved out. I’ll never forget how he’d chortle and sneer about the glories of the Colony: “We was all promised a septic; it was dug, but they never hooked it up. Dad figured we’d do better somewhere else.” The cooperative cotton never turned out enough profit, and, worse, the Colony’s charter was revoked after five years, thanks to Arkansas Gov. Carl Bailey’s hatred for his fellow Democrat, Floyd Sharp, who was running the colony on behalf of the Roosevelt administration. It turned out that Sharp had failed to pay an annual $11 corporation fee, so that was that. By that time, my people were long gone. Johnny Cash stayed, went to Dyess High School, and left when he joined the Army.
Merle Haggard was born an Okie in Bakersfield, California. His people weren’t from the same “community” as mine, but they were from a similar one, and together those communities formed what one might call a “nation”—that is, according to my handy dictionary, “a large aggregate of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory.” As Roger McGrath writes in this issue, the Okies, Arkies, and Texans who fled the Dust Bowl and other generalized agricultural devastation during the Depression to sunny California, the illusory American promised land of the western frontier, were all called “Okies” by their fellow whites. The Okies congregated together, in churches and honky-tonks.
Merle Haggard was shaped by that Okie culture and, in turn, participated in it, gave new shape to it, and passed it on to others. Haggard loved Lefty Frizzell, but the single greatest influence on him, beginning with his mother’s record collection, which he listened to obsessively from age five on, was Jimmie Rodgers. Musically, it was the blues progression, and lyrically, it was a simple, poetic expression of the life of a people—his people.
Culture precedes politics. Indeed, the very notion of a conservative political order grows out of something deeper, something rooted—established communities that are conscious of their own living traditions, the means of conveying those Permanent Things.
Wish Coke was still Cola
And a joint was a bad place to be
It was back before Nixon lied to us all on TV
Before microwave ovens
When a girl could still cook and still would
Is the best of the free life behind us now?
Are the good times really over for good?
I find it amusing—the way discovering a swollen tick on your thigh is amusing—that, after Merle Haggard died in April, so many writers of divers affections attempted to make him a symbol of their pet cause. Like a half-educated preacher, they prooftexted their way to Merle Haggard, the warmonger; Merle Haggard, the isolationist; Merle Haggard, the white nationalist; Merle Haggard, the “softened” right-winger; Merle Haggard, the misogynist; Merle Haggard, the dope-smoker who’d become famous for singing “we don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.” If they could align some snippet of a Haggard song with a bullet point of their ideology, they assumed and asserted that they knew what the man was. And then, should any contradictory data point intrude, they’d just ignore it. But the Hag was not a mass of contradictions, nor an Hegelian synthesis of rival ideologies. He was the opposite of an ideologue. Merle Haggard was a conservative.
An ideologue hears “My daddy’s name wasn’t Willy Woodrow, and I wasn’t born and raised in no ghetto—I’m just a white boy looking for a place to do my thing,” and thinks either “Merle Haggard was a white nationalist,” or “Merle Haggard was a bigot who hated black people.” There is no need to understand what he was actually saying—namely, that he was sick and tired of race politics, that he was proud of his own heritage, that poor white guys like him just want to work hard and make a living, that rich white “Willy Woodrows” couldn’t care less about his people (or about the blacks on the welfare rolls whose “soul” was being celebrated endlessly by white liberal ideologues in the mid-70’s). None of these erstwhile Haggard fans (or haters) mentioned another song Haggard recorded immediately after “Okie From Muskogee,” a first-person narrative called “Irma Jackson,” in which he plaintively decried the bitter prejudices of late 1960’s society against a white man’s love for a black woman. So, did that make Haggard a liberal or a leftist? No: Haggard simply wrote about what he perceived to be unjust, unkind, and unfair. Furthermore, he was a songwriter who wrote in character, and just as Haggard wasn’t personally in love with a black woman named Irma Jackson, neither was he personally looking to “find me a wealthy woman,” as the character in “I’m a White Boy” declares. Artful irony is lost on ideologues.
A conservative can get angry at “some squirrely guy” who claims “he just don’t believe in fighting,” and be disgusted at some punk who’s “running down our way of life,” and later turn around and condemn the unnecessary, imperial war in Iraq. (Haggard was so enraged by the lies told by the Bush administration about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction that, in 2007, when John “Bombs Away” McCain was becoming the GOP frontrunner, Haggard wrote a song endorsing Hillary Clinton, who was vowing to get American troops out of Iraq. He later regretted it.) A conservative can oppose our current open-borders transformation of America, yet speak humanely about Mexican migrants, recognizing that American businessmen who flout immigration laws, together with Washington officials who have no interest in enforcing them, have caused our immigration crisis. They sneak ’em through customs till time comes to bust ’em / Then haul ’em back over the border to their own native land.
Unlike an ideologue, a conservative is always hopeful. Because of politics? Because the next election will solve our problems? No. Conservatives are hopeful because recovering the Permanent Things is always within our grasp. One way to do that is to write a new song—one that tells the truth, drawing on our deep love of people and place, free of the cant of the “left” and the “right.” There’ll never be another Okie from Muskogee, but there must be new songs.