Proud To Be An Okie is the most important volume of country music history to emerge in years, a worthy companion to Gerald Haslam’s similarly west-coast-centered Working Man Blues from 1999. Drawing upon everything from old fan magazines to the new whiteness studies, Peter La Chappelle focuses on country music and class about as well as anyone ever has, and the results are eye-opening — revisionist in the best sense of the term. He doesn’t just tell us who played what where; he helps us to see why country music mattered to its transplanted Okie fans in the first place.
La Chappelle begins by detailing the arrival in California of so-called Okies in the 1930s. This was an unwelcome arrival, so far as most Californians were concerned, and it inspired fearful, hateful reactions that anticipated many of today’s anti-immigrant attitudes. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, openly and regularly referred to the migrants as “white trash,” and a sign in the lobby of at least one Bakersfield movie theater required: “Negroes And Okies Upstairs.”
In this anti-Okie climate, country music, particularly western swing, played a key role in voicing migrant concerns and in nurturing a sense of group identity and community. La Chappelle is excellent here, though on at least one point, he pushes his evidence a bit harder than it can bear. Woody Guthrie’s short-lived show “Woody And Lefty Lou” — a politically charged 15-minutes-a-day radio program that paired Guthrie with country singer Maxine Crissman and where Woody debuted songs such as “Do Re Mi” — was doubtless an exemplary instance of left-leaning Depression-era country music. It was hardly representative, though, as La Chappelle seems to imply.
In the book’s second half, La Chappelle covers the more or less complete assimilation of these transplanted working-class whites into the “crabgrass frontier,” the tidy lawns and ranch homes of southern California’s middle-class suburbs. The main figure here, of course, is Merle Haggard, and exhibit A is the book’s title track, as it were, Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee”. La Chappelle’s chapter-long discussion of that confounding populist phenomenon wrestles with competing, often contradictory ways of hearing the song: as a “pro-Vietnam War anthem,” as a “statement of migrant pride,” and as “Counterculture Icon.”
To his credit, La Chappelle places far more value on how Okies used the song than on the interesting but considerably less important matter of what in the hell Haggard may have meant by it.