A Lonesome Whistle Blowing

Merle Haggard’s parents moved from Checotah, Oklahoma to California in 1935 after their barn burnt down, becoming part of the great Dust Bowl migration westward.  Merle Haggard was born two years later on April 6, 1937.  They settled into a converted railroad boxcar on the outskirts of Bakersfield, and his father got a job on the Santa Fe railroad.  The first thing of consequence Haggard remembers is going to choose a puppy for his third birthday, a fox terrier called Jack, who would live nineteen years and die while Haggard was in San Quentin prison.  Haggard always had a love for trains, being raised in a boxcar and the son of a railroad man growing up beside the railroad track, he hopped his first freight train when he was 11 years old and went about a hundred miles before he was arrested in Fresno.  His father died of a brain hemorrhage in 1945, so his mother had to go to work and become the sole provider for the family.

Haggard’s teenage years were a blur of petty crime, vagabond travel and juvenile detention and as he started getting locked up, he also started escaping.  He said that he escaped seventeen times from various institutions, by either jumping fences, breaking through doors, or by simply picking the right moment.  His life fell into a pattern, mess up, be sent away for a bit, escape, be sent away for a bit longer, get out, repeat.  One time while he was drunk he tried to break into a restaurant that was still open and the arresting officers also found a stolen check-printing machine in his car, after which he compounded everything by escaping from the local jail, he discovered that this time he had messed up badly enough to be sent to San Quentin on Dec. 24, in 1957.  Haggard had been in the audience serving a sentence of one to fifteen, when Johnny Cash first played in San Quentin on January 1, 1959.  Merle Haggard spent two years and nine months in San Quentin Prison and after his release, he came out a changed man.

Merle Haggard was a pioneer of both the Bakersfield sound and the Outlaw Country movement, the California native and one-time resident of San Quentin Prison was a rule breaker both in and out of the studio.  The song ‘Mama Tried’ was written and recorded by Haggard, released in July of 1968 and it would spend four weeks at number one and it would go on to be the cornerstone of his career.  He wrote this song to tell the true story of how his mother tried to keep him out of trouble.  Merle told how nothing his mom tried could change him.  He admitted thru his life that he was glad he got locked up in prison because that’s what it took to change him.

Merle’s Mama was an excellent mother, she was a devout Christian, but she had her hands full with Merle.  Merle’s mother was left alone when his father died, she was a bookkeeper at a meat company and Merle kept getting into trouble a lot, because he had too much energy and he wanted to know things.  His problems started with him breaking truancy laws that required him to go to school, but when he was 13 years old he thought that he was grown.  He got sent to juvenile hall and he broke out, then he stole a few cars and all the while his mama tried.  He was in prison when he was 21, but he didn’t get life without parole, though, that’s the line in the song.  He wrote “Mama Tried” after he got out.

‘Mama Tried’ was recorded in 1968 at Capitol in Hollywood and it was produced by Ken Nelson and Fuzzy Owen.  The song starts with James Burton on a dobro (wood-bodied resonator guitar), finger-picking.  Along with the folky guitar, Bonnie Owens and Glen Campbell sang vocal harmonies.  Glen played rhythm guitar and sang a tenor harmony.  Merle did the arrangement and he told James Burton to try the fingerpicking to bring the group into the tempo.  The other musicians there were Jimmy Gordon on drums, Jerry Ward on electric bass and Norman Hamlet on steel guitar.

The first thing I remember knowing,
Was a lonesome whistle blowing,
And a young un’s dream of growing up to ride,
On a freight train leaving town,
Not knowing where I’m bound,
And no one could change my mind but Mama tried
One and only rebel child,
From a family, meek and mild,
My Mama seemed to know what lay in store
Despite my Sunday learning,
Towards the bad, I kept turning
‘Til Mama couldn’t hold me anymore

I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole.
No one could steer me right but Mama tried, Mama tried
Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading, I denied
That leaves only me to blame ‘cause Mama tried

Dear old Daddy, rest his soul,
Left my Mom a heavy load,
She tried so very hard to fill his shoes
Working hours without rest,
Wanted me to have the best
She tried to raise me right but I refused

I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole
No one could steer me right but Mama tried, Mama tried,
Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading, I denied
That leaves only me to blame ‘cause Mama tried

Written for 11/25/18 Helen Vahdati’s This Thing Called Life One Word at a Time Song Lyric Sunday Theme where the prompt is “first”.

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