Merle Haggard: Folk singer.
Words change, and like it or not folk music has taken on a terribleness that’s impossible to deny. As a folk music dj I find myself over explaining what kind of music it is I play. I can never simply say folk music. Words like Americana are used, roots music, traditional music. Or, worse, lengthy examples are given, names are dropped and for what?
Merle Haggard: Folk singer. If We Make It Through December: Folk music.
Recorded in 1973 for the album of the same name, the song was the only single released and it hit number one that October. The album is perhaps a lesser release in Haggard’s cannon, filled mostly with covers, during a period of stagnant popularity. Stagnant, not so much in ticket or album sales, but in the way all superstars eventually become, where every album is expected to do well and be solid, and we sometimes miss just how good they still are.
The tune would show up again on most of his Christmas collections and maybe here finds its home. It is a Christmas song after all. One filled with sadness and shivers, but that certainly doesn’t invalidate it. We’ve all had a blue Christmas.
If this were released today how deep would it resonate? It speaks of layoffs and needing to move someplace cheaper. Future plans that the listener knows won’t happen. A Christmas that can’t wait to be over.
When I listen to the song I’m struck by how much it reminds me of Fred Neil’s 1967 classic Everybody’s Talkin’. I should probably say Harry Nilsson’s classic. Sometimes a singer owns the song more than the writer. Both are songs about winter, both about leaving someplace cold and broken for better times ahead. Both owe a debt to Woody Guthrie and all the hobos and tramps who sung the starlight rails. There’s a wistfulness to the songs that remind me of Lenny and George, talking about the farm they’ll someday own all the while a gun is, well, that’s how it goes isn’t it?
Merle Haggard: Folk singer. Even with the frosted album cover. Snow flakes on his blue flannel jacket and in his hair, a farmhouse off in the distance. Maybe especially because of these things. Put John Denver there instead, or Sam Bean or Nilsson. They all fit.
He’s not a folk singer though and he proves it by singing about factory lay offs and daddy’s little girl. These aren’t themes in a folk singer’s songbook. There’s no protest, no argument; these things are what folk music has come to mean now. Instead there’s simply lament for letting down his daughter and sadness for hating December. If they make is through December though, everything’s gonna be alright. I know.