On October 26, the History Forum welcomed Professor Peter La Chapelle, of Nevada State College. Dr. La Chapelle (M.A., CSUB; PhD, USC) spoke on the evolution of "Okie Pride" from the late 1940s to the era of the Vietnam War. "Fightin'Sides: The Vietnam War, the Counterculture, and Merle Haggard's 'Okie from Muskogee'" provided an entertaining but serious look at Merle Haggard's iconic ballad of heartland conservatism in the midst of the anti-war movement of the late 1960s. Tracing Okie identity from the end of the Dust Bowl migration to the last years of the 20th century, La Chapelle made a compelling argument for understanding Haggard's song within the context of war and social upheaval.
Drawing on research for his new book, Proud to Be an Okie: Cultural Politics, Country Music, and Migration to Southern California (Berkeley: UC Press, 2007), La Chapelle argued that "Okie from Muskogee" was at first considered a defense of the pro-war position. Mainstream country music audiences, in particular, embraced the song as a statement of conservative small-town family values. To them, the song seemed to support President Richard Nixon's efforts to portray the anti-war movement as alien and un-American. In the town of Muskogee, Oklahoma, however, audiences hailed the song as an expression of Okie Pride. Interestingly, the anti-war audience also embraced the song as an example of the dull and out-of-touch attitudes of Nixon's "silent majority." Anti-war artists even recorded parodies of it. In various interviews over the years Merle Haggard gave ambivalent answers to questions about the song's meaning.
Haggard has never been easy to categorize politically or artistically. His own experience in prison as a young man made him a lifelong activist for prisoners' rights, and in virtually all of his songs the themes of poverty and struggle dominate. His early work was compared by Rolling Stone magazine to Bob Dylan and Woody Gutherie. Dr. La Chapelle noted that it was the version of the song sung by movie and TV cowboy Roy Rogers that cemented its status as a pro-war statement. Haggard, in a 1993 interview with La Chapelle, claimed that he sang the song in his dad's voice. For Haggard, like the audience in Muskogee, the song's main message was "proud to be an Okie."