Merle Haggard dies at 79

by Peter Wagner, April 6, 2016

Country Music star Merle Haggard died today on his 79th birthday. Unlike Johnny Cash who also made the pain of incarceration a central theme in his work, Haggard actually did serve time. And, ironically or perhaps luckily, Haggard was in the audience at Cash’s very first concert at a prison, and that experience led him him to take up a career in music.

But Haggard didn’t leave his roots behind. Of his many songs about incarceration, my favorite is “Branded Man” about the discrimination faced by formerly incarcerated people: “No matter where I’m living, the black mark follows me,” he sings. “I’m branded with a number on my name.”

Here is a live performance from 1968:

The song, which peaked at #1 in 1967, is still in frequent rotation on country music stations. Merle Haggard deserves credit for 49 years of trying to teach this country just how short-sighted it is to hold past mistakes against people. As he sings in the chorus:

I’d like to hold my head up and be proud of who I am
But they won’t let my secret go untold
I paid the debt I owed them, but they’re still not satisfied
Now I’m a branded man out in the cold

Now Merle Haggard went on to become famous, in no doubt because, as Rolling Stone put it last year: “Luckily for Haggard, his music career never again required him to answer the ‘have you ever been convicted of a crime?’ question on a job application.” It’s well past time to extend that right to more people.

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