Were you thinking, I really need to know what Jacobin has to say about Merle Haggard? Probably not. Unfortunately, Jacobin decided to publish a Merle Haggard obituary of sorts, by Jonah Walters. It is, without exaggeration, the worst essay I have ever seen in that publication and one of the worst essays on music I have ever read. It is essentially an exercise in Aesthetic Stalinism, arguing that Merle Haggard was a terrible person and overrated artist because he was supposedly the voice of American reaction for a half-century. This is not only wrong politically, it’s wrong musically. Let’s break it down.
The America Merle Haggard sang about was an ugly, indefensible place, a revanchist fantasy where the democratizing momentum of the 1960s never swept from sinful coastline cities into the pure heart of the middle country; where history and politics remained untroubled by the presence of non-whites; where women existed only to break hearts and be heartbroken (generally in lonesome small-town diners); and where the most working-class people could hope for was martyrdom, not liberation.
This is ridiculous and just wrong. “Where history and politics remained untroubled by the presence of non-whites.” Huh. Well, what about “Irma Jackson”? What about “Go Home”? Both are songs about interracial relationships broken up by racists. Haggard actually wanted to release “Irma Jackson” instead of “Fighting Side of Me” as the followup to “Okie from Muskogee” but the record company overruled him. Yet such facts never get in Walters’ way. Merle was not singing about black oppression per se, but I don’t think that’s a reasonable standard by which to judge the politics of a musician. Moreover, there are plenty of minor songs that at least express a certain level of solidarity with working people of other races. For instance, “The Immigrant” off Haggard’s relatively minor 1978 album I’m Always on a Mountain When a Fall (“It’s Been a Great Afternoon” was the big hit on this album) is not particularly sophisticated or a great song but it’s a song about undocumented migrants that welcomes them into the country and hopes they will come back when they are inevitably deported. Walters’ argument on Merle Haggard’s catalog is absolutely incorrect.
As for the line about women, welcome to country music. And this is of course the real problem with Walters’ article. He is dismissive of country music as an art form because he doesn’t like the politics and considers the entire genre a revanchist fantasy. More on this later. Songs about heartbreak are the centerpiece of country music songwriting, especially before 1990. Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, and Tammy Wynette sang about women in these terms just as much as Merle Haggard or any other supposedly sexist male artist. One feels that Walters is the type of lefty who makes an exception for Johnny Cash, but dismisses the entire genre otherwise as the music of racists and sexists.
For Haggard, working-class allegiance meant political conservatism. He shape-shifted to suit the times, but never wavered in his reactionary posture. He was a hippie-hating hawk in the sixties and seventies, a dutiful Reaganite in the eighties, and a petulant chest-pounder during the first Gulf War, when he broke a mid-career spell of semi-obscurity with a song criticizing antiwar protesters. There are precious few lyrics in his songbook worth defending.
Now this my friends is what you call a selective timeline. Among other things, I wonder why Walters doesn’t discuss the Iraq War? Actually, he does, later in the article:
But no amount of waffling could challenge the red-blooded conservatism of his some of his fans, including the contemporary country star Toby Keith, whose Iraq War–mongering sing-along “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” was inspired by Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”
He blames Merle Haggard for Toby Keith. Interesting. I wonder if there were any county musicians who opposed the Iraq War? Oh yeah, this guy:
A new Merle Haggard song that is critical of the media’s coverage of the war in Iraq is being rushed to thousands of radio stations around the United States.
Tom Thacker, vice president of Hag Records, says the song “That’s the News” is generating intense interest around the country from media and fans.
“We’re mailing it out as we speak,” Thacker said. “It’s going to a broad range of stations.”
“It’s another one of Merle Haggard’s social commentaries,” he said. “This time it’s kind of opposed to the tone of ‘The Fightin’ Side of Me.”‘
Quite the unreconstructed right-winger there! There are other anti-Iraq War Haggard songs as well.
At the core of Walters’ analysis is that Haggard wasn’t the right kind of political artist. By representing white populism and not engaging in fantasies of global revolution, Haggard somehow sold out the American working class, who clearly didn’t want to hear his messages as he is only one of the most popular artists in the history of recorded music.
The same year, he released “Working Man’s Blues.” This was a year in which workers’ movements all over the world demanded a more just economy, replete with better entitlements and expanded leisure time.
But according to “Working Man’s Blues,” to be a proud member of the working class was to be a dutiful employee, arriving to work on time in the morning, drinking beer in the evening, and denying the need for welfare all the while.
First, saying “workers’ movements all over the world demanded a more just economy” is both true and not true at the same time. Yes, there were uprisings at Lordstown and elsewhere through the 1970s. But that doesn’t mean that a majority of workers believed such things per se, that they felt their popular music had to represent those viewpoints if they did, or that wanting to go home and drink a beer is somehow anti-political or antithetical to their interests. As I have stated elsewhere, one problem the labor left has is that it assumes an empowered worker is a worker who is going to spend their off-hours engaged in meetings for democratic unions or anti-racist meetings. Sometimes it is. It’s also empowering to be able to go home and watch a bad CBS comedy, or have time to watch your kid’s soccer game, if that’s what you want to do. Empowerment is not “do what I think you should do.” Empowerment actually means “you have choices to do what you want to do.”
Walters clearly has not actually read anything on Haggard either, which is too bad since the literature on him is voluminous. He mentions that Haggard played for Pat Nixon’s birthday in 1973 as central to his argument that Haggard was an unreconstructed conservative. What he doesn’t do is discuss how Haggard actually responded to that event. Jefferson Cowie does detail this event, in his great book Stayin’ Alive, which Walters desperately needs to read if he wants to write about the white working-class. Haggard described it as a horrible experience. He remembered, “I felt like I was coming out for hand-to-hand combat with the enemy.” That’s the evidence Walters should be using. But instead, the actual fact of Haggard playing at this event is a sign of his unreconstructed politics in this incredibly shallow essay.
Walters then goes on to somehow blame Haggard’s nostalgic songs about the 1980s as prepping for Reagan’s election but has no evidence at all to even begin supporting this point.
The point of course is not that Merle Haggard is a progressive hero. He’s not. Merle Haggard’s core belief was that he liked money. He acted accordingly. He wrote a wide variety of songs, some of which expressed conservative fantasies, others that expressed quite progressive and nuanced politics.
But for all too large swaths of the left, dealing with the actually existing white working class and their cultural forms is far more difficult than fantasizing about the idealized white working class in their minds. See this absurdity of a paragraph:
It’s a tragedy that Haggard adopted a regressive, individualistic politics of misplaced nostalgia. In other circumstances, his life experience might have guided him toward the opposite, toward a progressive politics of collective action.
This is Jacobin magazine, a magazine hoping to spawn a new revolutionary politics. You might call it a tragedy that white people don’t generally respond to cross-racial collective action, but the point if you believe that should not be that Merle Haggard represents everything wrong with America because he didn’t write songs from the precise political perspective you personally espouse. It should be that we need to learn from Haggard’s songs to tap into tenets of white populism where the left might build a broader class-based politics. But so often on the left, talking about the white working class as they actually exist, turns into a snobbish dismissal, whether of actual people or of their cultural forms. That this essay is being published at the same time that the same magazine has published many essays supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders is quite telling. As the 2016 elections have shown, we are in a moment of an upsurge of white populism. A lot of it has supported Trump. But not all of it. Sanders has had some success among the white working class. He’s the kind of politician that can provide a real voice for white working-class people. Jacobin supports that, but seems to also lack actual white working-class voices that make these people real. It’s easy for the left to talk about the working-class from a generalized perspective. But Walters’ essay shows how quickly many leftists fall into a knee-jerk belief that the actual living breathing white working class is a political failure and thus evaluates their cultural forms from that perspective. Walters attempts to avoid this in his last paragraph:
We can defend the millions of Americans — many of them poor, rural, and neglected — who find comfort and companionship in Merle Haggard’s music without defending Haggard himself, because we understand what Haggard didn’t: together we can build a just, prosperous world for the future, rather than simply imagining one in the past.
“We understand what Haggard didn’t” is perhaps the most condescending phrase of all time. It screams of “let me tell you, poor whites, what the real and correct politics are.” It says that Haggard’s songs, or at least the few cherry-picked songs to support this essay and not the actual catalog of Merle Haggard, are actually wrong and we now know better. In union organizing training, you are taught to listen carefully to the people you are talking to and build arguments for unions based upon their concerns, not your concerns and your talking points. This is good advice. I have to feel that Jonah Walters would be a terrible organizer if that was his job because he would condescend rather than listen, spout talking points rather than consider the real desires of the people he was organizing.
Jonah Walters’ article is a failure as a piece of musical journalism. It’s a failure at understanding that art and the artist’s biography are not the same thing. It’s a failure as a history of Merle Haggard. It’s a failure as a political argument. It’s a failure at understanding anything about the white working class. It is an absolutely terrible essay and Jacobin should be ashamed to have published it. This feels more appropriate to be published with the recent anti-white working-class articles at The National Review than in a leftist publication.