Some of Merle Haggard’s early albums were really just rushed together collections to capitalize on hit singles. That was the case with Branded Man. But the fact was that Haggard’s work was so strong at this point in his career that the albums are still great. But I don’t especially want to talk about the album when the title track is so interesting.
It tells the story of a man who has been released from prison who finds that society will not let him forget his past. One doesn’t need to have been to prison to feel that the world just won’t let go of your past. And despite Haggard’s success after he left prison, I know that he is speaking from experience.
My favorite line from the song is, “I paid the debt I owed them, but they’re still not satisfied.” That was written in 1967 when society was actually far more forgiving of past indiscretions than it is today. The truth is that when someone goes to prison, they never pay their debt to society. We are, on the whole, an awful people. And there is no end to the punishment. It goes on and on until you die.
I suppose you could justify the whole thing by noting that people are afraid. But I don’t much think that’s the case. I think that people simply lack empathy. I’ve long found it fascinating that people who live in high crime areas are more forgiving than people in low crime areas. That’s not about fear; that’s about a lack of imagination regarding the lives of others.
Just the same, “Branded Man” also shows the other side of this. Even if society did manage to forgive the singer, it’s hard to think that he would see it that way. The saddest line in the song is, “Determined I would rise above the shame.” Well, shame is an internal thing. But at least the singer knows he should feel shame. Too bad the society itself does not.