RAINBOW STEW: In his syndicated column this week, Alexander Cockburn raises a familiar topic: an antiwar alliance of left and right. He brings it up in an unusual context, though: in the wake of his last Merle Haggard concert. Hag has been speaking disapprovingly of John Ashcroft and other dark Washington forces on this tour, and Cockburn thinks he sees a possibility of alliance. "Merle's political positions have evolved somewhat since the late Sixties," he writes. "There's a slab of the Right that's denouncing America's imperial wars. That wasn't happening in the early Sixties. If the Left could ever reach out to this Right, which it's almost constitutionally incapable of doing, we'd have something."
Has Merle really changed? Yes -- but he didn't have to change all that much. It's not so hard to imagine a bridge between at least some of the leftists who launched the '60s and the Haggard who sang "Okie from Muskogee." One link would be Woody Guthrie, who's up there with Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, and Lefty Frizzell in Hag's personal pantheon. It's no surprise that Haggard sang about an "Okie" from Muskogee, even if the message of that song was a little distant from Guthrie's "Talking Dust Bowl Blues." (These days fans argue over whether "Muskogee" was meant as a joke or as a serious bit of hippie-bashing. I've always taken it as a dramatic monologue, sung from the view of a character Haggard likes but who isn't necessarily himself. As he once told an interviewer, "Son, Muskogee's just about the only place I don't smoke it.")
As for "Fightin' Side of Me," the song says quite directly, "I don't mind them switchin' sides and standin' up for things that they believe in." What roused his ire was something else: "When they're runnin' down my country, hoss, they're walkin' on the fightin' side of me." Not a bad distinction, and one that a lot of people, left and right, don't seem able to learn. (Granted, the same song includes this bit: "I read about some squirrely guy who claims that he just don't believe in fightin'/And I wonder just how long the rest of us can count on bein' free.")
Guthrie's influence suffused Haggard's output during this period. His albums were filled with terrific songs about dust bowl refugees and their latter-day successors -- from "If We Make It Through December," about a laid-off worker who can't afford Christmas, to "Working Man Blues," which might have appealed to a Wallace voter in Michigan, to "Irma Jackson," an interracial love story that the Wallace voter would've liked somewhat less. In the last decade, he's chatted up interviewers with militia-style conspiracy theories about foreign troops on U.S. soil, even while happily posing on the cover of a hemp-oriented magazine. If Haggard embodies American crossover populism today, it's because he's been doing it all his life.
Not a bad credit for someone who's also the best bandleader in current country music, one of the finest singers in American pop, and, along with Bob Dylan and Ray Davies, one of the three greatest songwriters of the last century.
Footnote: Left-right cooperation still has a ways to go. A few months ago, Haggard posted a note on his website saying he'd like to host his own radio show. "Not everything can be set to music," he wrote. "If anyone cares to respond or help me in my endeavors, please email me." I passed this along to some friends at a certain leftist radio network, mentioning that "a Pacifica that gave Merle Haggard a talk show would be a Pacifica to be proud of." Never heard back about that.