America First

Merle Haggard, 2005

In the first line of the song, Haggard asks "why don't we liberate these United States?" From whom and/or what does he feel the United States must be liberated?

Throughout the song Haggard refers to inequalities (the "blessed" versus the "cursed," those on the Hill versus those in the valley, etc.). Who do you think are the "blessed" and "cursed" people that Haggard refers to in the chorus?

What demographic of Americans do you think Haggard is speaking for? Does the style of the music link Haggard and his message to a particular group?

Haggard claims that he is not partisan and has never voted. But the phrase "America First" was one of President Donald Trump's campaign and governing slogans during his term. What messages do you think Trump was trying to send by using this phrase? With whom do you think he hoped this slogan would resonate?

"America First" performed by Merle Haggard on Chicago Wind, © 2005. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

For more information about Merle Haggard, visit his official website.

Rights have not been secured to reprint the words for this song. Please consult the following online resource for lyrics:

Merle Haggard (1937–2016) was the son of Dust Bowl migrants who moved from Oklahoma to Bakersfield, California, in 1935. When he was born his family lived in an abandoned railroad car that his father had turned into a makeshift mobile home. After his father died in 1946 he became a juvenile delinquent, eventually serving time in San Quentin State Prison from 1956 to 1960. Following his release, he began playing as a backup guitarist in clubs in Bakersfield and quickly rose to stardom. In the early 1960s he was silent about his criminal history, but after the success of his 1967 song "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive" he embraced his past and portrayed himself as "badman" in the vein of Johnny Cash.

Haggard's music helped popularize the "Bakersfield sound," a style developed by Buck Owens, Wynn Stewart, Bill Woods, and others who played in taverns and dance halls in the Bakersfield area in the 1950s and 1960s. The style avoids the polished sounds of Nashville country in favor of an edgier aesthetic characterized by sharply picked electric guitars. Haggard might be best known for his patriotic stance during the 1960s, articulated in his hit "Okie from Muskogee" (1969), VAT Unit 8, which was seen as mocking hippies. It was never intended to inspire political furor, and Haggard did not appreciate how the song became partisan. "I've never been a Republican, I've never been a Democrat, and I've never voted," he said (qtd. in Fine).

Merle Haggard

The same dissatisfaction with the nation's political climate that had manifested itself earlier in "Okie from Muskogee" inspired "America First." It first appeared on Haggard's album Chicago Wind, which includes other tracks that are similarly politically inspired. Haggard composed the song to communicate his displeasure with the Iraq War and what he perceived as the decline of the country. He expressed his desire to sway social movements, saying, "If there's an ambition left in my body, it's … to write eight lines that will put the condition of the country foremost again before it's too late" (qtd. in Fine).



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