'Mad Men' Music: Merle Haggard, The Platters & Buddy Holly

Monday, 11 May 2015 06:03 AM Written by 

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read unless you've seen last night's episode of Mad Men, the sixth of the final seven episodes.

This week's episode of Mad Men, "The Milk and Honey Route," was even crazier than last week. It's October 1, 1970,* Duck Phillips is back, seeking a replacement for Don, whose walk-out at McCann Erickson led to his dismissal yet again and likely the end of his advertising career. Those who talked of impending death get a rude awakening when the afflicted, from terminal lung cancer, turns out to be Betty (on a Mother's Day episode), who smoked her share on the cigarette-heavy series.

With his Cadillac in the shop, Don ends up in a motel in a fictionalized version of real-life Alva, Oklahoma (home of Northwestern Oklahoma State University). He meets a group, including local veterans, who seem to be true Heartland folk. But it turns out the motel owner, the local vets and Andy, the male motel cleaner aren't all they seem. Don, who identifies himself as a Veteran, gets invited to a fundraiser at the local Legion Hall that involves a lot of boozing and confessions, Don included.

All that said, beneath their "simple folk" veneer the individuals seen are in many ways back-country types not that different from the ones Dick Whitman dealt with growing up. Instead of going to the cops, they dole out vigilante justice by whacking Don with a phone book after automatically assuming he stole American Legion fundraiser money he didn't steal (Andy did it). For Don, redemption (if any) seems far away.

Pete and Trudy's seeming rapprochement bears fruit and another bail-out from McCann seems all but inevitable. No Joan, Harry, Ted, Peggy and Roger (and Bert) this week.

Two Alva Legion Hall notes: Korean War vet Jerry Fanning is played by David Denman of The Office. Playing Floyd, the bearded WWII vet: Max Gail, who co-starred as Detective Stan "Wojo" Wojciehowicz on the beloved 70's NYPD sitcom Barney Miller, a show that at least partly inspired Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

What of the songs? Well, I smiled when I heard the first, which actually hinted at what was to come. When Don, in full suit, tie and Cadillac is pulled over by a cop as this song plays in the background (it turns out to be a dream sequence):

Merle Haggard: "Okie From Muskogee" (1969)

This seemingly anti-hippie song, written more or less as a joke by Haggard, was based on a comment his drummer Eddie Burris made when the band's bus was traveling through Muskogee, Oklahoma (Haggard's parents moved to Bakersfield from Oklahoma). While Haggard saw it as lighthearted, it became an unexpected hit in the fall of 1969 in the wake of Woodstock, as it summed up the views of some country fans toward the whole idea of hippies, antiwar protests, marijuana, jeans, long hair and sandals. Haggard himself was far less hardcore.  Despite a fist-shaking anti-protester followup hit, "The Fightin' Side Of Me,"  Haggard flatly rejected requests to endorse George Wallace for President in 1972. To this day, his political views tend to follow a hardcore populist view, not all left or right.  In later years, Haggard said "Okie" reflected what his late father would have thought had he lived to see hippies.

This is the single.

You hear this song in the background when Don's in the Oklahoma motel lobby complaining about his TV being out of service.

The Platters: "Harbor Lights" (1960)

In the year 1950, five acts, four of them Big Bands (though the Big Band Era had faded) had Top Ten records with this song: The Sammy Kaye Orchestra, Guy Lombardo & His Orchestra, Ray Anthony & His Orchestra and Ralph Flanagan & His Orchestra. Bing Crosby had the solo hit with the song that year.  It was also a favorite of Elvis Presley's.  He actually took a stab at recording it at Sun Records before finding his mojo with "That's All Right (Mama)" in 1954.

But the version heard in the lobby was this 1960 recording by the Platters of "Twilight Time" fame, one of Pete Seeger's favorite vocal groups.

At the end, Don realizes the handyman,  a con man much like himself, needs a leg up. Don gets the stolen money back, returns it, gives the kid a ride and finally his Cadillac. Sitting on a bench in rural Oklahoma, seemingly uncertain of his next move, he's unaware of the calamitous news that awaits him back in Rye. Seeing him truly contented, sitting on a bench with little to his name as the episode ends, one wonders if he'll ever return to New York to discover that news.

Buddy Holly: "Everyday" (1957)

Amid all the rockers that made him famous, Buddy Holly and the Crickets recorded this gentle ballad, a measure of his depth as a composer, on May 29, 1957 at Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, New Mexico. The muted sound is intentional. Holly sings and plays guitar; Cricket Joe B. Mauldin plays bass. Drummer Jerry Allison is rhythmically slapping his knees and Petty's wife Vi, a lounge keyboard player is playing the tinkly celeste.

Next week marks the end, and it will be interesting to see if they come up with a musical end as interesting as Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" ending The Sopranos.

* The October 1, 1970 date comes from Don in his motel room watching NBC's Flip Wilson Show episode with guest Redd Foxx.  According to TV Guide.com, the episode of that popular variety show included Foxx, Lily Tomlin, the Temptations and country singer Roger Miller.

 

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