Recently I gained what I hope is a sharper understanding of the great white rage that has fueled Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and, before that, the Tea Party.
Merle Haggard, the greatest country singer of them all, passed away April 6.
I’ve been a fan for as long as I’ve known what country music is. As Jimmy Buffet said of Pasty Cline, for me there is just no one who can touch Merle; I hang on every line.
When Haggard died, I did what fans do in such times: I broke out his recordings and relistened.
I heard something I hadn’t noticed before: Merle prophesied the rise of Donald Trump and the Tea Party.
It’s all in his songs. Through the 1960s and then beyond, he showed us a worsening disenfranchisement among the working class, and more particularly, among blue-collar white men.
Before you argue that not all Trump followers or Tea Partyers come from the working class, or that at least a few aren’t white, or that Trump’s fans and the Tea Party’s constituents aren’t necessarily the same people, allow me to agree with all those points.
But what Trump’s fans and the Tea Party do have in common is free-floating outrage at — something. The what isn’t always clear.
That anger has now spread across social classes, but if you want to understand its origins, a good place to start is the disintegration of blue-collar life.
And nobody chronicled that better than the Hagg.
You could take graduate courses in sociology without learning as much as you would from a well-selected 20-minute set of Merle.
His musical narrators are white guys who survive with their hands. They came of age during World War II, or shortly after, when the United States dominated the world economically and militarily. Lacking formal education, they found steady jobs that paid decent wages. They supported their families.
They lived hard, always a paycheck or two from disaster, but their work provided them identity and self-worth. They earned the respect of their wives and kids and neighbors (or so they preferred to think).
Then something happened to all of it: dependable jobs, trustworthy government, the love of their families.
It’s enlightening to watch the progression in Merle’s stories. His working-man songs of the late 1960s, Okie from Muskogee, The Fightin’ Side of Me, Working Man Blues, are about guys clinging to their jobs yet baffled by social upheavals.
The perplexed narrator of Okie tells us, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee/ We don’t take no trips on LSD/ We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street/ We like living right, and being free.”
(An aside: Haggard and his buddies sometimes distanced him from that redneck anthem. In one telling, he and his band were traveling through Oklahoma, high on weed, when they saw a highway sign and a band member exclaimed, I’ll bet they don’t smoke dope in Muskogee! Voila! A country classic was born.)
In Working Man Blues, a laborer with nine kids says, “I ain’t never been on welfare, and that’s one place I won’t be, ’cause I’ll be working, as long as my two hands are fit to use.”
In Fightin’ Side, the narrator addresses anti-war protestors: “When you’re running down my country, hoss, you’re walking on the fightin’ side of me.”
But within a decade or so — a decade that saw President Nixon’s disgrace, the fall of Saigon, the rise of feminism, the recessions of the Carter and early Reagan years, the decline of Detroit automakers — the lyrics shifted.
By 1977’s I’m a White Boy, the narrator has become racist, outraged by nebulous minorities he thinks live on public assistance while apparently he can’t do anymore the one thing he wants: find work. What’s implied is that he might end up on welfare, too.
Just a few years after that, in Are the Good Times Really Over, the working man has lost faith in the country itself.
“I wish Coke was still cola/ and a joint was a bad place to be,” Merle sings, sadness dripping off every word. “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?”
Haggard’s own life didn’t mirror the hard-working, under-appreciated, upright men he sang about.
He spent his youth as, in his word, an “incorrigible” petty criminal, in and out of reform schools and penitentiaries. Unlike Johnny Cash, Merle didn’t just sing about San Quentin; he served time there, including a disciplinary stint on Death Row that inspired Mama Tried. (“I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole. No one could steer me right, but Mama tried.”)
Later, he worked briefly as a ditch-digger, but he fled to sing in bars and then in arenas. He was never a second-shift-at-a-steel-mill kind of guy.
Not a devoted family man, either: He partied hard and married five times.
But his working-man persona captured a larger reality. Steve Earle, one of country music’s few left-wingers, pointed out in an op-ed about Haggard that a guy can write powerful songs without being the person he’s singing about.
Merle recognized in its infancy a brewing rage born of fear, loss and damaged self-esteem. His characters had never existed far beyond the margins, yet they enjoyed a few happy years during a prosperous era, and then watched the good times go “rolling downhill like a snowball that’s headed for hell.”
In their telling, their jobs were abolished and their families were wrecked and their beliefs were mocked by white fat cats, liberals and minorities alike.
They got really mad. Their anger is still with us, and it’s spreading.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.