ANTHEM, Book 3 of the Sixties Trilogy, publishes on October 1. Each of the book’s 47 chapters begins with a song from the Sixties to set the tone, mood, and scene. Every day between now and October 1, come have a listen and read a snippet from each chapter. On October 1, these posts will be archived with a link at ANTHEM’s webpage for #teachingAnthem1969

This is Chapter 27 (day 21):

OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE
Written by Merle Haggard and Eddie Burris
Performed by Merle Haggard and the Strangers
Recorded live at the Civic Center in Muskogee, Oklahoma 1969
Drummer: Eddie Burris

“Nice tune,” Norman said.
“Thanks,” said the kid without looking up or stopping. “I’m workin’ it up.”
“Yeah? What’s it called?”
“Mama Tried. It’s a song by Merle Haggard, you know it?”
Norman shook his head. “Nope.”
“Hey!” Molly appeared with a bag of ice in her arms. “We just saw he’s playing in Muskogee tonight!” 
“Yeah.” The kid stopped playing and looked at them with bright blue eyes. “I can’t go. Are you going?”
“We’re going the opposite direction,” said Norman. “You like country music?”
“It’s the best!” said the kid. “And Merle’s the best, too. Did you know, he’s been to prison?”
“Not exactly my definition of the best,” said Molly.
“That’s what the song is about — listen! I’ll sing it!”
“Not again!” said the attendant. He was cleaning the bus windshield, stretching to reach as much of it as he could. “Play something else!”

Just as I learned to appreciate the Allman Brothers Band, I have fallen completely in love with Merle Haggard. Completely. I remember when “Okie From Muskogee” — “a place where even squares can have a ball” — was a hit, and how we laughed at the spot-on lyrics — they make me laugh with such affection for those days, still. “We don’t make a party out of lovin’// we like holding hands and pitchin’ woo.”

But I didn’t understand what a great songwriter and guitar player Merle was until I began to widely listen to him and read about him while researching Chapter 27. I hope you’ll give him a listen here. 

Yes, we come into Oklahoma in this chapter, but before we get to country music, this is as good a time as any to tell you that there is a chapter cut between Chapters 26 and 27 that I still mourn, and that I will put here at the blog, and on Anthem’s webpage, after October 1, so it will live there, and you can read it. 

This “Chapter 26A” is the first of three (or four? I have to count) chapters we cut for length and movement. My editor, David Levithan, did such an amazing job of helping me see where to cut in order to keep our action moving, and not lose major threads, but I’m also — still — bereft at all we cut.

And the book is still 540 pages long. That includes maybe a hundred pages of primary-source scrapbook material, but it’s still a long book, getting these kids across the country and having them experience 1969 along the way. 

The cut chapter, 26A, “Lady Madonna,” takes place in Little Rock at band practice, and features a walk on by a man named Bill who plays the sax (!), while Kyle (the kid Norman and Molly picked up just as they came into Arkansas) sings a new song for the band, “Lady Madonna” by the Beatles, as a nod to his mother, Phyllis, and all working mothers in the late sixties. 

Women were increasingly entering the workforce in the late sixties, often after a divorce, which was unheard of (or whispered about) in the pages of COUNTDOWN in 1962. 

So. Changing times. And country music! As American as music gets. In Oklahoma, in Chapter 27, Norman and Molly certainly enter another world. Read closely and you’ll recognize Troyal, the 7-year-old kid at the gas station who is playing guitar and singing Merle’s “Mama Tried.” Such classic country lyrics: “I turned 21 in prison, doing life without parole//no one could steer me right, but Mama Tried.” (Great photos of Merle at that link.)

I included lots of cameos in this book that young readers might not have recognized, but adults would certainly know Bill Clinton with his sax and a young Garth Brooks with his cowboy hat and guitar, and the others who show up in California, like a Forrest Gump of walk-ons, few of whom made the final cut. As David pointed out to me, less is more in that department, let’s get these kids to the finish line. 

Which, in the end, is what I did. But I mourn those chapters. You’ll be able to read them, too, and meet the other walk-ons, right here, after ANTHEM publishes on October 1. I’ll point out the other “missing” chapters as we get to them.

In the meantime, Molly and Norman are hot-footing it across Oklahoma, with a freshly repaired bus, a new “old glory” American flag and the radio blasting, as they head into the Texas panhandle. 

Chapter 27.