"And I Turned 21 in Prison, Doing Life without Parole"

"Mama tried to raise me better."

January 9, 2010.Finn.0 Likes.2 Comments
Home/Blog/Ft. Myers, Margaritaville/“And I Turned 21 in Prison, Doing Life without Parole”

For those just looking, the line “And I turned 21 in prison, doing life without parole” is from “Mama Tried,” by Merle Haggard. If I got my story right, the song is about the guilt he felt for the anguish he put his mother through for being locked up in San Quentin from 1958-1960. Why was he in San Quentin? For trying to break out of Bakersfield Jail. Why was he in Bakersfield Jail? He robbed a roadhouse the year before because he and his wife were beyond broke.

It wasn’t all bad. While in San Quentin, he got to see a Johnny Cash concert. And, he was inspired to write this classic as well as many, many others. Some could argue he was meant to be there.

As for some aspect of the song “Mama Tried,” here’s a shortcut list.

Now, what was I writing about again, all them years ago? Oh, yeah. Them beautiful days in the SWFL…

So, back in Fort Myers, I was falling asleep on the couch after another Saturday night dinner as oldold man Finn watched The Lawrence Welk Show. An uncommon occurrence indeed. Somewhere ’round the end of “Huckabee” I woke up with a tune in my head.

I thought the tune was played on The Lawrence Welk Show, but then I remembered the show’s theme was Disney and that I couldn’t have fallen asleep faster to the alluring sounds of The Mickey Mouse Club Mambo.

What the Hell?…

The tune in my head wouldn’t have fit the pattern. Merle Haggard would have set the set of the show on fire if his outlaw gem was in the same show as the Mickey Mouse Club Mambo.

No one could steer him right, but Mama Tried, Mama Tried…

If you check the playlist above, you’ll find some great renditions of the definitive outlaw song:

  • Merle Haggard’s (studio cut)
  • Johnny Cash
  • Grateful Dead at Woodstock
  • Everly Brothers on the Smothers Brothers Variety Show (What the F*CK?)
  • David Allen Coe (and if that ain’t country, you can kiss his a**)
  • Willie, Merle, and Toby

Road Tested

The oldold man & I tested out several of this classic as we headed back from the Ocean on our road trip.“Mama Tried” became our unofficial theme song of our road trip.

Yeah, I’m finding Grateful Dead covers he’ll hum along too. His repressed outlaw is coming out.

The more I research for Book of Blues Prequel and the farther along I go in Plan B, the more I can’t escape the bond between Country & Western Outlaws and Blues leaders. I didn’t place “Mama Tried” in the Book of Blues – nearly a shame but for the fact I can put it in the Prequel, and perhaps the Blues Book Sequel. I think I know how I’d do it to.

But getting back to that Saturday night, as I hummed the chorus:

And I turned 21 in prison / doin’ life without parole
No one could steer me right but mama tried, mama tried..

It dawned on me where I heard the song…

As I was in an out of consciousness before The Lawrence Welk Show, oldold man Finn was watching the Time Life Gold Age of Country infomercial.

Fuckin’ infomercials. Will I ever escape them?

It only shows that inspiration can come from damned places.

Speaking of oldold man Finn

He made it out to the Florida Gulf Coast University men’s basketball game just fine last night. And he still made his bike ride, too. The old man is still leaving footprints.

And I’m breathing easier.

Update: 2016/08/22

It’s been nearly seven years since this post. It’s been over three years since the OldOld man gave the place away in Ft. Myers, FL. It’s been two and a half years since my bride and I left the Third Coast for the Left Coast. But throughout all the travels and the years, I still think of this song fondly. I remember that couch all-to-well, along with all those trips throughout the backgrounds of Southern Florida, and of this song. It’s the time of my life where I went from a passing fancy for Outlaw Country to downright respect for those pioneers.

Below, I posted a Spotify playlist of all the different bands I found that covered, “Mama Tried.” They range from Merle and his friends, 14 or so variations by The Grateful Dead, heavy metal and punk bands, to the fucking Everly Brothers trying to blow their sharp creases and pleats straight off their frame. As I listen to the list, I gather all the more respect for the influence Merle left behind.

I live under a gas tank away from Merle’s childhood boxcar home in Bakersfield now. I even have family there. I visited the city shortly before he passed. I’m told his boxcar is about ready for tours. I’m looking forward to getting to visit it.

There are retailers, genre-specific musicians, and then there are those so badass that their essence bitchslaps anyone who tries to classify them.

Welcome to the club, Merle.

Second Update: 2016/08/22

I haven’t found their specific rending on either Spotify or YouTube as of yet, but I did find the audio on a Chinese site. Check it out.

Lyrics to Mama Tried by Merle Haggard

“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 all my Sunday learning
Towards the bad I kept on turning
Till Mama couldn’t hold me anymore

“And 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

“And 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”

Spotify playlist of the song “Mama Tried”. Original and covers by about everyone and their uncle.

Try it on random, though I’ve already left it pretty random.

Featured image photo credit: J.W. Doran [and, more accurately, Merle Haggard!] via Flickr

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  • Margaretaull

    When I was a teenager a good many years ago when one of my friends got arrested, I started singing “I turned 21 in Prison” & most of my friends laughed and said where did you come up with that? I replied that I heard it from the Grateful Dead. It was several years after that when I realized it was actually a Merle Haggard tune. I was never a Merle Haggard fan until I heard “Okie from Muskogie”  & I was in the peach orchards around my hometown smoking a little reefer & it all came home to me. All music comes from somewhere. All jazz comes from blues, blues grew into country/rockabilly/rock & roll and there’s always crossovers everywhere, even from boogie woogie from the Big Band era. Music goes across the boards no matter what you like it all originated from somewhere and it just keeps on evolving! How great is that!! Even during the 60s when my grandmother was playing her piano (& she didn’t know how to read music … she learned it from the old country church she knew) she had a boogie woogie beat to her old Baptist hymns she played and she had so much fun playing them & I had a great time listening to them with her! What great times it was back then! Those times will never be had by  anynbody in this geneation & if they did they won’t appreciate any history about music. They all will think it originated with them! How sad!

  • natfinn

    I find I have to stay away from pop radio to find those same kind of roots. Nowadays we can pick and choose the song we want to hear when we want to hear it when on the road. There’s still something to be said for those days where you and thousands of others are listening along at the same time to stories we all relate to.

    And the lineage is still out there. It’s just a bit of a search to find them. Then hoping others are listening along at the same time.

    Gone are the days, indeed.

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