How country music explains America's divided history

In 1969, the country musician Merle Haggard gave Middle America — what Nixon called “the great silent majority” — an anthem with “Okie From Muskogee”: “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don’t take no trips on LSD/We don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street/We like living right, and being free.”

But was it the red-meat conservative song many fans made it out to be? Haggard could be ambivalent about it. In a 1970 interview in Rolling Stone, he was blunt about the counterculture protesters: “I don’t like their views on life, their filth, their visible self-disrespect.” But he also said he wrote the song as a satire, and in later years he said that he’d been “dumb as a rock” when he wrote it.

Haggard’s ambivalence was emblematic of how many people felt at the time: sometimes hawkish, sometimes dovish. And the best music of the era struck notes not only of strident patriotism but of lamentation about the human cost of war. There was Loretta Lynn’s “Dear Uncle Sam”; Jimmy Webb’s “Galveston,” popularized by Glen Campbell; and “Green, Green Grass of Home,” a haunting, fatalistic ballad told, it’s revealed in the final verse, by an inmate facing execution. For soldiers who themselves felt under a kind of death sentence, the song spoke volumes.