California Forum

Tracing Merle Haggard’s trip from boxcar to icon

Merle Haggard
Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard and his sister Lillian Rea would laugh at the comparison, but the converted boxcar in which they were raised was transported like a royal chariot the other day from their hometown, Oildale, across the dry Kern River to the Kern County Museum’s Pioneer Village on the outskirts of Bakersfield.

It will be displayed in that cluster of historic structures soon, a symbolic expression not only of Merle’s genius, but of the remarkable contributions of so-called Dust Bowl migrants to California.

Ironically, on the way to its new setting, that caravan passed over the river channel on the Chester Avenue bridge beneath which in the 1930s and ’40s was a Hooverville camp full of desperate migrants seeking employment in nearby agriculture or oilfields.

They were some of over a half-million people from Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas and other locales seeking not handouts but honest work.

Merle and Lillian’s parents, native Oklahomans, James and Flossie, had converted that 41-foot boxcar into a home, and it was by no means an eyesore in working-class Oildale, a community that also housed oilfield cabins pulled on skids into town from their original locations.

To locals, that housing represented a step toward security and a symbol of the possible. If you’ve lived on a ditch bank, a boxcar or skid house looked pretty good. It is certainly fitting that Merle, a native-born Californian with those familial Oklahoma roots, symbolized such progress, for he has never abjured his hometown.

For a time in the 1930s, the glut of economically desperate Southwesterners was accepted as a welcomed source of cheap labor in the Central Valley.

After John Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange, Horace Bristol and Carey McWilliams, among others, exposed exploitation of Okies, Arkies and Texies, Kern County high-rollers organized the statewide California Citizens Association, which campaigned to stop welfare support to “the idle thousands,” and to encourage them to return to their home states.

Everything from spreading nasty rumors (the migrants were accused of incest, for instance) to burning their camps was used to discourage Southwesterners and to rally support against them.

But the migrants were not easily intimidated. Many eventually served in World War II, and many others did backbreaking work other folks – especially other white folks – didn’t covet.

Along the way, they changed the nature of society, starting with blue-collar grit and rural conviviality, then spreading through the social levels: holy-roller churches, destruction derbies, square dances, among others.

Southern- and Midwestern-style cooking became a regional delight, and country music – especially what is now called the Bakersfield Sound despite Los Angeles’ importance – established a whole new beach head for dobros and fiddles and especially solid-bodied electric guitars.

Merle Haggard had lived down to a lingering local negative stereotype of Okies: rowdy, tough, even criminal. He also was capable of growth and change.

In his teen years, Merle Haggard had lived down to a lingering local negative stereotype of Okies: rowdy, tough, even criminal. But he also was capable of growth and change, and he was supremely talented.

By the 1960s, he had matured and was becoming the bard of an emerging California, a state in which Southwestern migrants were major cultural players.

Like the novelist James D. Houston and the poet Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, the athletes Lon Spurrier and Rafer Johnson and politicians Jess Unruh and Bernie Sisk, Haggard came to represent a new, openly blended California, one in which post-World War II promises were beginning to become available to all save the most recent arrivals.

So today Haggard’s boxcar sits amidst the houses of historic Latino vaqueros, of prosperous Chinese entrepreneurs and Afro-American pioneers, the symbol not of an outsider’s accomplishments, but of a gifted native son’s climb from the outskirts of a complicated society toward the reshaping of its dynamic social core.

Gerald Haslam is an author who has been called the quintessential California writer. He helped raise a little money to preserve the Haggard boxcar. His most recent piece for The Sacramento Bee, “Forgiveness: A gentle yet powerful weapon,” appeared on July 4.