Singing for the underdog

Submitted by Matthew on 20 April, 2016 - 12:43 Author: Gerry Bates

The country and western singer Merle Haggard, who has died, is best known for The Fighting Side of Me, a song in which he expressed the feelings of American patriots against the Americans who opposed US involvement in Vietnam:

I hear people talkin’ bad
About the way we have to live here in this
An’ gripin’ ‘bout the way things oughta be...
An’ I don’t mind ‘em switchin’ sides
An’ standin’ up for things they believe in...
When you’re runnin’ down my country, man
You’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.

Thus he expressed the feelings of most US workers at the time in face of what was seen as a heavily middle class and hippy-bohemian anti-war/anti US movement. He explained his anti-anti-war attitude as a sense that he didn’t know much about Indochina, and neither did the protesters. They should have left it to the government, who did.

Haggard was also the author of a number of sharply class-aware songs about working class experience. Not socialist songs, but valuable songs, nonetheless. I used to loathe country and western, especially Irish country and western, which can have an awfulness all its own.

Sentimentality, religiosity, unreflecting patriotism, espousal of the here-and-now US working class acceptance of capitalist values, is too often part of it. It embodies old-fashioned gender roles. Its performers often wear ridiculous rhinestone-studded “western “ costumes. But there is more to it, to some of it anyway.

Country music is too often despised even by socialists who like folk music and blues. Yet it is the music of the American working class, mainly of the white working class, I guess. It is a sort of commercialised folk music, and often includes protest songs and laments, which see things frequently from a working-class and underdog angle. Try listening to Haggard’s Hungry Eyes, Working Man Blues, or America First.

Hungry Eyes

A canvas-covered cabin in a crowded labour
Stand out in this memory I revived
‘Cause my daddy raised a family there, with
two hard-working hands
And tried to feed my mama’s hungry eyes
He dreamed of something better, and my
mama’s faith was strong
And us kids were just too young to realize
That another class of people put us somewhere
just below
One more reason for my mama’s hungry

She only wanted things she really needed
One more reason for my mama’s hungry eyes
I remember daddy praying for a better way of
But I don’t recall a change of any size
Just a little loss of courage, as their age began
to show
And more sadness in my mama’s hungry
Oh, I still recall my mama’s hungry eyes

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