Make My Old Memories Come Alive

Merle Haggard will always be known as a founder of the signature ‘Bakersfield sound’, but as a teen he was a rebellious, he compiled a criminal record that included such offenses as truancy, passing phony checks and grand theft auto.  At the same time, he taught himself to play the guitar.  As he got older his escalating juvenile delinquency frequently landed him in reform facilities and county jails, but when he wasn’t serving time he worked in the oil fields during the day and indulged his love of music at night, playing guitar in local bars and clubs.  Haggard did his first stint in jail at age 11, when his mother turned him over to the juvenile authorities as being incorrigible.  As a teenager, Haggard went into jail at least three more times, and got out by escaping at least once.

In 1958, at the age of 20, Merle Haggard and a friend, Mickey Gorham, tried to break into a restaurant in California after hours.  As it turned out, the establishment was actually still open, so Merle ended up paying a premium price for his stupidity.  He was caught and arrested on a burglary charge and sentenced to 15 years in San Quentin, a maximum-security penitentiary just outside of San Francisco.  He ended up serving only two years of that sentence, and while serving his time, he played in the prison’s country band and took high school equivalency courses.  Haggard had been in the audience at Johnny Cash’s first of two concert appearances at San Quentin and he credits Cash with giving him the inspiration to launch a career after prison.  His incarceration was a pivotal event in his life.  In the midst of his sentence, he endured seven days of solitary confinement for making moonshine, and he emerged from his isolation cell determined to turn his life around.  Haggard would later be officially pardoned in 1972 by then governor of California Ronald Reagan.

Merle Haggard fundamentally altered the course of country music on a granular level, by introducing a sonic blueprint that would come to be known as ‘the Bakersfield sound’, which was a rough-hewn counterpoint to the sweeter sounds coming out of Nashville at the same time.  Bakersfield was the first genre of country music to rely heavily on electric instrumentation, as well as a defined backbeat, and it was the first country music to be significantly influenced by rock & roll.  Named after the town of Bakersfield, California, where a great majority of the artists performed, the sound was pioneered by Wynn Stewart and popularized by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.  Using telecaster guitars, the singers developed a clean, ringing sound that stood in direct opposition to the produced, string-laden Nashville sound.  The Bakersfield sound became one of the most popular and arguably the most influential country genres of the ‘60s, setting the stage for country-rock and outlaw, as well as reviving the spirit of honky-tonk.

‘Sing Me Back Home’ is the tale of a Death Row prisoner, bound for execution, whose last request is a song that will remind him of home.  It was based on a man that Haggard knew in San Quentin, Jimmy “Rabbit” Hendricks.  He and his cellmate both loved their freedom and they had each made escapes before.  Merle’s cell mate had been sentenced to life without parole and one day he told Haggard that he was going to break out and Merle thought about coming with him, but luckily he decided against making this rash decision.  Hendricks escaped and killed a policeman while he was on the run, and after he was captured again and returned to prison, a San Francisco court handed him down a death sentence by gas chamber. When his cellmate was on his final walk to the death chamber Merle knew that the crime Hendricks committed was brutal and the guy was a hardened criminal.  Haggard witnessed the scene in the prison yard when Hendricks was being led to his execution, and this became the inspiration for him to write the song ‘Sing Me Back Home’, which he wrote a few years later while driving through North Carolina.

The prisoner that is going to the gas chamber says that music, and in particular a song from his childhood memory that was sung by his mother, provides him with solace.  When he stops in front of Merl Haggard’s cell the last request of this condemned man is to let his guitar playing friend play this song for him.  The prisoner seems to still be clinging to life, even though he has accepted his death.  He is making an emotional connection with music to the bitter end.  The lyrics are enough to generate tears of sorrow for the condemned man’s last request and this drives the theme of peacefulness home with soul-gripping poignancy.

Finding the right tone for a song is a delicate business, and Haggard had a relative advantage with ‘Sing Me Back Home’, because this song was authentic, as he literally served time in prison, which gave him credibility.  Like all singers, Merle Haggard’s timing dragged occasionally, as he got older, but his grain coarsened enough to illuminate a longing that could no longer be realistically pleased, as he was essentially a barroom singer, whose desire and grief both thrived best in darkened spaces including places of the heart.  The life of a prisoner takes place according to a daily schedule.  They will have the wake-up, roll-calls, morning exercises, times for meals, times for escorting the prisoners to work and school and times for studying and working, as well as the times prescribed for sports events, telephone calls and walks.  Serving time in prison is the same in Imperial units as it is in Metric units, as prisoners spend day after day, year after year, separated from their family and friends.  Prison food does not necessarily need to be tasty, but it is supposed to be healthy.  A typical breakfast includes a low-salt or sugar-free cookie, an apple or banana, and a cup of warm milk or hot instant coffee.

The warden led the prisoner
Down the hallway to his doom
I stood up to say goodbye like all the rest

And I heard him tell the warden
Just before they reached my cell
“Let my guitar-playing friend do my request”

Sing me back home
A song I used to hear
Make my old memories
Come alive

Sing me away
Turn back the years
Sing me back home
Before I die

I recall last Sunday morning
When a choir from off the street
Came in to sing a few old gospel songs

And I heard him tell the singers
There’s a song my mama sang
Could I hear it once before you travel on

The warden led the prisoner
Down the hallway to his doom
I stood up to say goodbye like all the rest

And I heard him tell the warden
Just before they reached my cell
“Let my guitar-playing friend do my request”

Let him
Sing me back home
Before I die

Written for Daily Addictions prompt – Generate, for FOWC with Fandango – Schedule, for September Writing Prompts – Imperial units, for Sheryl’s A New Daily Post Word Prompt – Illuminate, for Ragtag Community – Coffee, for Scotts Daily Prompt – Premium and for Word of the Day Challenge Prompt – Rash.

7 thoughts on “Make My Old Memories Come Alive

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