Merle Haggard is widely regarded as one of country music’s all-time greats. He stands alongside George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash on the metaphorical Mt. Rushmore of country music. Throughout his career, the California singer-songwriter had 38 No. 1 hits. “Sing Me Back Home” was one of them.
It is well known that Haggard spent his early adulthood in prison for a failed robbery attempt. Haggard wrote many songs while imprisoned at San Quentin State Prison, dreaming of freedom and a life beyond the confines of a cell.
“Sing Me Back Home” came from the prison captive himself. He released the song in 1967 as the first single and the title track of his record, Sing Me Back Home. The song spent two weeks at No. 1 and 17 weeks on the country charts. The song was Merle Haggard and The Strangers’ third No. 1 hit. And it’s one of the saddest country songs ever written and recorded.
The song “Sing Me Back Home” was inspired by fellow inmates James Rabbit and Caryl Chessman, who were also dreaming of freedom. Rabbit was executed in 1961 for killing a California Highway Patrolman, and Chessman was the first modern American executed for a non-lethal kidnapping.
Several artists have either performed or released their own versions of the song, including The Everly Brothers, Joan Baez, The Grateful Dead, Don Williams, Alabama, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Marianne Faithful & Keith Richards.
The song tells the story of a condemned prisoner that is being taken to the death chamber. The prisoner’s last request is to hear a song from his friend and inmate who regularly plays for him. The song takes the prisoner back to his hometown, where he remembers the church he grew up in, his friends and his mama. He is settled into comfort as the inmate sings him back home to his final resting place.
The warden led a prisoner down the hallway to his doom
And I stood up to say goodbye like all the rest
And I heard him tell the warden just before he reached my cell
“Let my guitar friend do my request”
Let him sing me back home with a song I
And make my old memories come alive
And take me away and turn back the years
Sing me back home before I die