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Proud to Be An Okie - Cultural Politics, Country Music and Migration to Southern California

By Peter La Chapelle

University of California Press, 350 pages, paperback

Reviewed by Michael Sudhalter, July 2007

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"Proud to Be An Okie" is a fascinating book that details the history of Dust Bowl refugees migration to southern California. Unlike other books about this topic, this one intertwines history with the country music that the transplanted settlers brought to the region.

La Chapelle does an excellent job of balancing both the migrants' history and that of the music history, giving a detailed description of both. The early portion of the book focuses on 1930's country/folk performer Woody Guthrie, who migrated to Los Angeles from Oklahoma. Guthrie's story serves to debunk the myth that country music has always been a conservative thing.

On his radio show, he supported New Deal politics and progressive causes, including some that were considerably left of center. The book also showcases the discrimination that "Okies" received from the California establishment, pointing out that Los Angeles Police Department was sent to the California/Arizona border to stop migrants from entering the state.

The history of how the migrants' politics changed as the years went on proves interesting. The book shows the transformation from Guthrie's early populist themes through the honky-tonks of the 1940's, frequented by World War II defense workers. Due to the demand for workers at defense plants, attitudes towards migrants became more tolerant.

By the 1950's, many of the migrants ascended into the middle class and shelved their populist views for conservative ones.

Many of the country nightclubs of the 1940's closed, and new ones opened in suburbs outside L.A.

The final chapter deals with the complex musical career of Merle Haggard, a California-born performer born to Oklahoma natives. It was "Okie from Muskogee" that sent Haggard's career into another stratosphere, but that story was very telling about the music industry.

The industry took one song and pumped it up so much that Haggard, for a long time, was associated with right-wing conservatism. It paid less attention to progressive, populist songs earlier in his career that told the stories of Dust Bowl refugees.

La Chapelle provided an analysis of the song, with some taking it seriously and others thinking it was a parody of a small town, pro-war advocate. Interestingly, it shows Haggard to be neither on the left or right, but somewhat of a maverick - a man with complicated politics who is both against the Iraq War and for the public display of the Ten Commandments.

By focusing a great deal on Guthrie and Haggard, La Chapelle showcases how things have changed from the 1930's to the 1970's and to some extent, have come full circle in the new millennium.