Merle Haggard and Bob Dylan: Working Men
We Still Wave Old Glory . . . Herman loved country music. He enjoyed playing guitar in country bands, but he knew it wouldn’t pay the bills. So he sought part-time jobs that would keep him close to the music business. On weekends he’d work in the record department of a Woolworth in southwest Atlanta. There, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the customer base was changing. An intriguing shift was taking place. One part of the clientele was made up of whites smack-dab-in-the-middle of the middle class. Joining right in with them were the newly arrived blacks who had moved into close-by ranch homes in neighborhoods they’d dare not traverse a decade earlier. So much was changing so quickly with more change on the way. The pace was too swift for Herman. But he took care of his customers, whether they asked for the latest by Conway Twitty or Wilson Pickett.
Herman also did stints at a country-gospel station. The music there dealt with matters of eternity. Twitty’s “Hello Darlin'” didn’t make the playlist, as neither did any of the latest hits by one of Herman’s favorites, Merle Haggard. At the time, Haggard was on quite a roll; he was getting lots of play on the traditional country stations and picking up interest in other quarters. Both he and Johnny Cash, particularly from ’69 through ’71, were adding to country music’s fan base. A lot of rock music fans were slipping over to the country departments of their local record shops to hear more of Haggard. After all, the Grateful Dead had recorded a lively but respectful version of the Haggard classic, “Mama Tried.” The Byrds recorded his “Life In Prison,” while the Flying Burrito Brothers rendered versions of his “White Line Fever,” and “Sing Me Back Home” that clearly displayed Haggard’s skill at blending fervent stories with stirring melodies. His songs’ visuals came across splendidly; Haggard seemed one part Hank Williams and one part John Ford.
Herman was old school: little-red-school-house old school. He was pleased country music had gained a wider acceptance instead of being looked down upon, but he cared little for the rock and rollers embracing it. Still he was impressed that the Byrds and Bob Dylan had recorded country albums, and that Ringo Starr had flown all the way to Nashville to record an album with Music City’s premier players.
Herman’s uneasiness with the long-hairs playing fiddles and steel guitars was hardly atypical for the time and quite expected for anyone who knew him. He was a middle-aged man, but with a cantankerous manner which, at times, made him seem at least 10 years older. Yet he often conveyed a generous spirit. He made friends of a teenager who attended his church. On Saturdays, he’d have breakfast where the teen worked as a busboy. Herman and the busboy would mostly talk music, but now and then he’d spot something in the morning’s Atlanta Constitution that set him off. Deeply conservative, there was always something in the Constitution to put Herman on edge.
One story involved a teenager who declined a community award from the American Legion. The young man criticized the hard-right politics and zealous patriotism of the organization. He ridiculed the American Legion’s obsessive fear of communism. That got to Herman. Fast.
Herman pointed his finger at the busboy, saying, “He’d sure better fear it and he better pray he never lives under it, although it might serve him right.”
The subject quickly shifted back to music, but not so pleasantly. “And let me tell you,” he said as his eggs and grits arrived, “the reason you and your rock and roll friends like Haggard so much is because he’s an ex-con. Spend time in prison and you’re a hero to kids these days.”
The Fightin’ Side . . . Some of the younger workers and customers at the diner would often discuss the record reviews in Rolling Stone, which were generally informative. The reviews provided exposure to a wider range of music than could even be heard on the progressive FM stations of the day. The July 28, 1970 issue, for example, featured reviews of new albums by It’s A Beautiful Day, Buddy Guy, J. B. Lenoir, Free, the Grateful Dead, as well as Merle Haggard’s Same Train, A Different Time.
Rolling Stone critic Andy Boehm had words of praise for the Haggard album, a 2-record set devoted to the songs of Jimmie Rodgers, and rightfully so. Same Train, A Different Time was the genuine article then and remains so today. However, Boehm came off as condescending when describing Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” “Fightin’ Side of Me,” and “Workin’ Man’s Blues” as “self-righteous paeans to the silent majority.” The love it or leave it attitude of “Fightin’ Side of Me” didn’t please Haggard’s younger and more worldly fans, but he was, as an artist, getting the stories in his songs across. He shed light on what was embraced in certain pockets of America, not what was widely held throughout the country. Haggard reflected on the people he knew and people like them. One didn’t have to agree with the perspective of the “Okie” to understand his feelings.
In the diner, music was a hot topic, furiously debated and deemed important. The diner’s jukebox was filled with mostly country-western 45s and a smattering of rock and roll singles. The young waitress who stood by George and Tammy also liked Delaney and Bonnie. The optometrist had seen The Mamas and The Papas in concert, but he also liked watching Buck Owens on Hee-Haw. A young truck driver by the name of Toney would also join in the conversations. Toney was, in particular, like much of the diner’s clientele: his folks had grown up in the rural South during the Great Depression. They possessed, signified and carried all their experiences implied, and they held tightly to country music. Their boy liked Johnny, Merle, George, Tammy and that rising star, Charlie Pride. But the trucker liked his rock and roll too, even stretching out his tastes by purchasing Fragile, 1972’s groundbreaking album by Yes. He was surprisingly keen on Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson, but they and others always took a back seat to Merle Haggard, the working man’s troubadour.
One day, over a sandwich and hash browns, it was suggested to Toney that Haggard’s main appeal was to hayseeds and rednecks. Toney’s good nature vanished. He pushed his food aside and said, “Look, rednecks — hard working people working with their hands — built this country, and they’re still out there doing the work you kids make fun of.” Just getting started, Toney fumed, “You guys are crazy. It shows how little you know about the way the world works. You’ll all go to college and you still won’t learn what makes it work. But rednecks, those guys working in the grit and the heat everyday, the ones Merle sings about, they keep things going.”
Lotta Poor Man Make A Five-Dollar Bill . . . Haggard’s character in “Workin’ Man’s Blues” had nine kids and a wife; he had no choice but to keep his “nose on the grindstone” and “work hard everyday.” He wasn’t all business; in the evenings he’d slip over to the tavern. Over a beer, he’d daydream about doing a “little bummin’ around.” He’d catch a train and leave his bills and the grindstone behind; but the kids need new shoes, so it’s back to the real world and the work that comes with it.
Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues” is a tight, jumping number which should have done well on the pop charts. Still it reached number one on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart in August ’69. At the time, the U.S. unemployment rate was 3.5%. People complained about their jobs, but didn’t worry so much about finding work. Getting work, however, was difficult for the protaganist in “Cumberland Blues,” an impassioned song from The Grateful Dead’s album, Workingman’s Dead, reviewed in the same issue of Rolling Stone that critiqued Haggard’s Same Train, A Different Time.
“Cumberland Blues” is an energetic song with an Appalachian mindset. Oliver Trager in The American Book of The Dead describes it as an “upbeat, uptempo nod to the rigors and sacrifices of basic, dignified survival.” The protagnist needs that job in the coal mine. It’s dirty work, but it’s that or nothing. Other guys will gladly take his slot.
Lotta poor man make a five-dollar bill
Keep him happy all the time
Some other fellow makin’ nothing at all
And you can hear him cryin’
“Can I go buddy,can I go down
Take your shift at the mine?”
Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh wrote the music for “Cumberland Blues,” with Robert Hunter providing the lyrics. Of the song’s arrangement, Garcia said, “one part is modeled on the Bakersfield country and western bands like Buck Owens’s old Buckaroos and (Merle Haggard’s) Strangers. The first part of the tune is that style. And the last part is like bluegrass. That’s what I wanted to do: a marriage of those styles.”
Hunter considered the song special, and recalled an amusing story about it in his book, A Box of Rain.
The best compliment I ever got on a lyric was from an old guy who had worked at the Cumberland mine. He said, “I wonder what the guy who wrote this song would’ve thought if he’d ever known something like the Grateful Dead was gonna do it.”
Even as the Grateful Dead paid tribute to hard working people, they seemed beyond the grasp of Herman and Toney at the diner. The old guy Robert Hunter met would’ve felt a kinship with Herman. There were stories about hard times in the ’30s they could have shared, all the while considering the young people around them as soft, pampered and afraid of real work.
A New Path We Trod . . . Keeping in mind the current state of affairs, 2006 was a good year for American workers, whether working in the elements or a corner office. The unemployment rate was no higher than 4.6%. Still, Americans early in the 21st century, a prosperous time, realized vulnerabilities had been exposed. On September 11, 2001, the nation learned its sea-to-shining-sea boundaries were not invincible. Less than two years later, America, with 9/11 very much on its mind, was led to war under false pretenses. Then in 2005, nature and the political powers-that-be combined to cause great havoc along the Gulf Coast. So despite the boom in housing and the bull market on Wall Street, working people couldn’t be blamed for feeling uneasy. Thus, Bob Dylan’s “Workingman’s Blues #2,” from his 2006 album, Modern Times, seemed an appropriate reflection of the wariness and declining confidence felt across America.
While “Workingman’s Blues #2” serves as a tribute to the great work of Merle Haggard, the song leads to different destinations than the factory and the tavern. This working man looks back, while taking in what’s happening around him at the moment. The fix is in:
The buying power of the proletariat’s gone down
Money’s getting shallow and weak
Well, the place I love best is a sweet memory
It’s a new path that we trod
They say low wages are a reality
If we want to compete abroad
A guy in a landlocked state punching the clock everyday tries to absorb free trade and global markets, things he never thought about. It makes a difference in what he can afford at his local food market. Old resentments can’t help but fester as a working man sorts his way through the changes.
I can live on rice and beans
Some people never worked a day in their life
Don’t know what work even means
Dylan turned out one of his loveliest melodies for “Workingman’s Blues #2.” Its arrangement is quietly majestic. Dylan’s piano and Donnie Herron’s violin provide a gentle and sweet setting for the lyrics. Yes, it’s a majestic offering by Dylan, but one tendered with a heartfelt simplicity as warm and filling as a bowl of rice and beans, a working man’s delicacy.