By Christmas 1979, America was not just staggering, it was reeling. The Iran hostage crisis. The skyrocketing price of oil, the rationing, the crushing demand, and the endless lines at the gas pump. And, perhaps worst of all, the offshoring of hundreds of thousands of American jobs and the closing of countless American factories.
Former California Governor Ronald Reagan, who at the time was the Republican nominee for President, was credited for giving voice to so many of those displaced workers and awakening what was being called America’s “silent majority.”
But the truth was, Reagan, for all his earnestness and decency, was just an actor. He was playing a role. Admittedly, it was the role of a lifetime, a role dear to his heart, and a role he could play in his sleep. But at the end of the day, in December of 1979 Ronald Reagan was little more than a well-rehearsed and well-scrubbed flashpoint for an emerging, powerful, and long-silent force in American politics.
Yet, what crystalized America’s anxiety more than any presidential candidate was a country singer. Or, more to the point, it was a country song. This country song – a seasonal gem from the long, dark winter of ’79 (and one, to be fair, only nominally about Christmas).
But early in that dreary season of fading hope and growing despair, in three simple verses one ragged and surly troubadour captured perfectly the anxiety millions of Americans felt as the holiday approached and they watched a way of life – their way of life – slowly crumbling before their eyes.
The world didn’t just lose a giant this year. It lost a titan. Merle Haggard, who passed away in April, was not just the most important singer/songwriter in the history of country music, he was one of the most independent, unsparing and uncompromising artists who ever lived.
Yet Haggard never wrote or recorded a more influential and galvanizing song than he did in the fall of ‘79, at the depth of this country’s despair over its cratering economy. And I chose it as the last of my long-lost holiday nuggets this December for two reasons.
First, to honor the passing a country legend and to give his best-ever song one more moment in the sun. Because, thanks to its role in the 1980 presidential election, that song stands as one of the important and period-defining recordings of the 20th Century.
More importantly, however, I chose this remarkable little ballad to remind us as a nation that we are better and stronger together than we are divided.
And I did it in the hopes that all of us can take just a moment this evening – Christmas evening – to listen to it and reflect on that simple hard truth.
To those of you on the political left, I would urge you to listen carefully to Haggard’s words and voice. I urge you to really try to hear the man at the center of this song’s story. Listen to his fear and anxiety. Those feelings are real and they’re deep. What’s more, they are no less valid than yours, regardless of what you’re feeling about the next four years.
You embrace and are empathetic to that and, I promise, you’ll have a better and much deeper understanding of what just happened last month on election day.
And to those on the right, I would urge you to explore Merle Haggard, the man. The fact is, Haggard was more independent – and, frankly, probably more American – than most conservative, chest-beating and flag-waving patriots out there today.
And because he was so unapologetic and so fiercely independent, he turned his back on politics entirely and simply refused to embrace any one ideology. In fact, Haggard said on more than one occasion he would never support a politician solely based on the letter after his name. He would do so because of who he was and what he stood for.
Haggard was horrified, for example, at the lies the right constantly kept spreading about President Obama, and once said famously, “It’s almost criminal what they’re doing to our president.” He was likewise appalled that his benign and largely throwaway pop hit, Okie from Muskogee, had been co-opted and turned into a full-blown conservative anthem.
To anyone on the right, man or woman, you’d be well served to listen closely to the man who wrote and sang today’s lost holiday classic. And once having done that, you’d benefit from trying to emulate him – and not just falling in lockstep and swallowing hook, line and sinker every political position every angry talk show host jams down your throat.
You’d be better served, in other words, by being a little more like Merle Haggard and picking and choosing your positions.
I could have selected any number of holiday pearls to end this list, but I chose this one. Because it’s a song (and a singer) that can bring us together and give us exactly what we need on this Christmas Day, some four decades after it was first released.
What’s more, it’s a song that twice in its lifetime has proven to be the perfect song for the perfect season and at the absolutely perfect time in history.
So with that, please enjoy my final Song of the Season, Merle Haggard’s poignant, powerful, and all-too-human mix of holiday hope, cheer and fear, the bare-knuckled but ever-so-gentle working man’s prayer for Christmas, If We Make it Through December.