Merle Haggard’s beautiful little ode to San Francisco

When people think of Merle Haggard, they might think of old-school country, outlaw honkytonk, Bakersfield, Willie and Waylon, whiskey-soaked grizzled old country dude. They also might think of the song he’s most famous for, Okie from Muskogee, a paean to traditional conservative values and a sort of anti-anti-war anthem that small town country fans rallied around, and still do.

He also references San Francisco by name, derisively so, in a stanza that goes thus:

We don’t make a party out of lovin’;
We like holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo;
We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy,
Like the hippies out in San Francisco do.

I’m not sure what “pitchin’ woo” is, but you get the idea. The song became popular because of this critique of the hippie, leftwing, anti-war movement sweeping across the US at the time of its release in 1969, of which San Francisco was the cultural capital. But to imagine Merle as some reactionary, proto-Bill O’Reilly type is off the mark. He was a complicated man. I mean, the reefer-loving Haggard (he and Willie were buds after all) also included the line “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee,” in the same song.

But more than anything, Merle Haggard was a Californian, as in the entirety of the state. Brian Wilson was a Southern coastal middle-class suburban Californian, and Jerry Garcia was a Bay Area working-folk Californian. Merle Haggard was the rest of California, and all of it, born and bred by Okie transplants in hard-toiling central valley Bakersfield, and spending time in the rest of the state throughout his life, from Lake Shasta to his stint in San Quentin, his circle including the big cities as well. He knew San Francisco and SoCal more than people like Wilson and Garcia knew places like Bakersfield.

Which is why it shouldn’t be all that surprising that he penned one of the loveliest songs ever about San Francisco (this side of that Tony Bennett song). It’s such a sweet, heartfelt, wistful tune, made all the more poignant by the man behind the mic, and it even includes a mariachi-esque instrumental in the middle.

Here are the words:

Return To San Francisco

Should we ever lose each other somewhere along the way
Return to San Francisco, I’ll be somewhere by the bay
Climb the bridge, just comb beaches, ride the trolley cars again

Roam the hillsides of the city, count the seagulls in the wind

But return to San Francisco, always keep this vow to me
Return to San Francisco, we’ll make one more memory

But return to San Francisco, always keep this vow to me
Return to San Francisco, we’ll make one more memory

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