“Hungry Eyes” by Merle Haggard
The narrative of Merle Haggard’s “Hungry Eyes” centers on the vocalist portraying the role of a child living in a “labor camp” alongside his family. It has been noted numerous times that this is not a literal reflection of Merle Haggard’s personal childhood.
However, it is meant to serve as a tribute to his mom who, upon his father’s passing while Merle was still young, was forced to raise the family on her own. The song is also meant to be reflective of the hardships the family went through as residents of Oklahoma during the Great Depression.
So with that understanding in mind, we know that the “crowded labor camp” referred to in the first verse are actually what were historically called migrant camps. These were basically squatter communities that otherwise homeless families in parts of Oklahoma resided in during the Great Depression.
And perhaps the reason they were termed migrant camps is because ideally families would only be housed there temporarily. But either way, the depressing atmosphere of these communities were exacerbated by the fact that, believe it or not, the federal government withdrew funding for fear that the residents would become accustomed to living on the dole.
So even though this is America we’re talking about here, the reader should not deceive him or herself into thinking this experience was anything sweet, even for innocent citizens.
In fact as revealed in the first verse the vocalist’s father still had to ‘work hard’ regardless to provide for his family under these conditions. And whereas children may personally recognize hardship as adults do, as noted in the second verse, the narrator, as a child, was still able to perceive that his parents were having a hard time. Indeed it was “mama’s hungry eyes” whom his dad’s efforts seemed most dedicated to satiating.
And this is not to imply that the singer’s mom was giving his dad a hard time under these f*cked up circumstances. Instead her “faith [remained] strong”. Merle then goes on to imply, in a sentiment you don’t commonly hear in relation to the Great Depression unless maybe you’re a conspiracy theorist, that it was actually “another class of people”, presumably the higher-ups, which cast his and other families into this predicament.
Dad continues to do the best he can to provide for the fam. But as time progresses, so does the melancholy that he and his wife are experiencing. The mother, like any woman, desires luxuries for herself and her kin, but such was not visibly forthcoming. Indeed the vocalist recalls that despite his father’s efforts and prayers, “a change of any size” did not occur.
Of course the Great Depression did not last forever, and the American economy went on to prosper, especially in the aftermath of World War II. So what the vocalist is actually doing is reminiscing. And considering that, once again, this song is not autobiographical per se, it is clear that Merle remained sympathetic to what fellow Oklahomans went through during that harrowing period in history even after the fact.
But this is not to say that his own family didn’t go through their own hardships. And as far as such is concerned, what he actually remembers the most would clearly be the suffering of his mother, not necessarily in a physical sense but more so her sadness in witnessing the family go through poverty.
Merle Haggard (1937-2016), who specialized in country music, actually recorded this song alongside a band he used to perform with called The Strangers.
Merle wrote “Hungry Eyes” himself, and the track was produced by Ken Nelson (1911-2008).
Merle Haggard may not be a name you heard of if you’re not into country music. But in regards to that particular genre he is a certified legend. He dropped nearly 40 country chart toppers between the late 1960s and 1980s, in addition to taking home a plethora of awards, especially from the Academy of Country Music, throughout his career.
His most notable achievements include being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994, the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, being granted a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 and receiving Kennedy Center Honors in 2010.
“Hungry Eyes”, which was released on 17 February 1969, was amongst the aforementioned chart toppers, as it reached number one on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs list. It also peaked at number two on Canada’s RPM Country Tracks listing. In fact the late 1960s is considered to have been the heyday of Haggard’s career, with this song serving as one of his greatest works.
This track was the lead single to “A Portrait of Merle Haggard”, which was the titular artist’s 10th studio album and a product of Capitol Records.
Some people rather refer to this tune using the moniker “Mama’s Hungry Eyes”.