Merle Haggard, who was mourned by millions when he died yesterday on his 79th birthday, was a longtime marijuana smoker and an advocate for legalization. This will be surprising to some, since Haggard penned the 1969 hit “Oakie from Muskogee,” which begins:
We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don’t take our trips on LSD
The song quickly became an anthem for the so-called “Silent Majority” of Americans who didn’t cotton to anti-war hippies and their marijuana smoking. But according to a timeline constructed by UK’s The Telegraph, Haggard said in 1970, “We wrote it to be satirical originally. But then people latched on to it, and it really turned into this song that looked into the mindset of people so opposite of who and where we were.”
Haggard, whose parents were Okies, was born in Bakersfield, California where his family lived in a converted boxcar. After his father died when he was 8 years old, he became a rebellious kid who did time in prison for petty crimes and saw Johnny Cash perform at San Quentin. He’d learned to play the guitar, and got a break when Lefty Frizzell invited him onstage after hearing him sing. He later helped develop the stripped-down and genuine Bakersfield Sound in country music, recording dozens of hits like “Mama Tried” (later covered by the Grateful Dead).
Kris Kristofferson said after playing his own version of “Oakie from Muskogee” at a concert in 1972, “With apologies to our good friend Merle Haggard, who is neither a redneck or a racist, he just happens to be known for probably the only bad song he ever wrote.”
Kristofferson’s version has the verse,
We don’t shoot that deadly marijuana
We get drunk like God wants us to do
In 2005, Haggard told Men’s Journal: “At the time I wrote Okie From Muskogee, I didn’t smoke. I had been brainwashed like most of America about what marijuana would and wouldn’t do. I thought it was responsible for the flower children walking around with their mouths open. It was not so. But if a guy doesn’t learn anything in 50 years, there’s something wrong with him. I’ve learned a lot about it and America has too.”
When asked about Willie Nelson’s 2010 arrest for pot on his tour bus, Haggard told the Bakersfield Californian, “I think it’s silly to put someone in jail for [marijuana possession]. I think it’s a threat to the pharmaceutical industry that you can go to the garden to grow something that might keep you from having to use Lipitor.”
(According to one account, Haggard supplied some homegrown for Willie’s tour bus in 1996.)
When he appeared at the Mateel Community Center in Redway, California in 2012, Haggard stopped “Oakie” after the first line and enjoined the crowd, “Everybody that’s for marijuana, say ‘Aye!’ and the ones that don’t like marijuana can go to hell.”
“I’m a cancer survivor. I had a lung operation in 2008 and they took out a piece of my lung. I was ordered to use marijuana,” he said in 2014. “Either that or take a bunch of medication that I didn’t want to be hooked on. We are about to see marijuana take on a different standing. Even if nobody ever smoked it, the industrial reasons for its legalization are overwhelming and people are realizing that could save our economy, if they look at the truth.”
The beloved singer released an album with Willie Nelson featuring the song “It’s All Going to Pot” in 2015. You can see him inhaling in the video.