Waist Deep in the Big Muddy: R.I.P. Pete Seeger, 1919-2014

Pete Seeger, 2007, photo by Anthony Pepitone

Pete Seeger, 2007, photo by Anthony Pepitone

It’s impossible to separate Pete Seeger from his music. And there were so many great songs; union songs, protest songs, ballads, anti-war songs. WC saw him in concert half a dozen times, all of them wonderful, and in the words of the late Phil Ochs, “He sure gets you singing those songs.”

But for WC, the defining Pet Seeger song was his amazing anti-Vietnam War song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” It’s hard to separate Seeger’s lyrics from his music, but WC will give it a try.

It was back in nineteen forty-two,
I was a member of a good platoon.
We were on maneuvers in-a Loozianna,
One night by the light of the moon.
The captain told us to ford a river,
That’s how it all begun.
We were — knee deep in the Big Muddy,
But the big fool said to push on.

Seeger had been blacklisted for Communist activities in his youth. He refused to testify before the House Unamerican Activities Committee in the commie witch hunts, was convicted of contempt of Congress. The conviction was later overturned. But he was blacklisted.

In 1967, he made his first television appearance after the blacklisting, on the Smothers Brothers Show. The song he chose to perform was “Waist Deep”.

The Sergeant said, “Sir, are you sure,
This is the best way back to the base?”
“Sergeant, go on! I forded this river
‘Bout a mile above this place.
It’ll be a little soggy but just keep slogging.
We’ll soon be on dry ground.”
We were — waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool said to push on.

CBS, the Smothers’ Brothers network, decided the anti war – anti-stupidity, really – song was too controversial, and cut it from the 1967 show.

The Sergeant said, “Sir, with all this equipment
No man will be able to swim.”
“Sergeant, don’t be a Nervous Nellie,”
The Captain said to him.
“All we need is a little determination;
Men, follow me, I’ll lead on.”
We were — neck deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool said to push on.

“Nervous Nellie” in the third stanza is the phrase President Lyndon Johnson used to describe anyone who was worried about the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. So, yeah.

All at once, the moon clouded over,
We heard a gurgling cry.
A few seconds later, the captain’s helmet
Was all that floated by.
The Sergeant said, “Turn around men!
I’m in charge from now on.”
And we just made it out of the Big Muddy
With the captain dead and gone.

Tommy Smothers, never shy about controversy himself, went public with the fact that CBS had censored Pete Seeger and “Waist Deep” from their show.

We stripped and dived and found his body
Stuck in the old quicksand.
I guess he didn’t know that the water was deeper
Than the place he’d once before been.
Another stream had joined the Big Muddy
‘Bout a half mile from where we’d gone.
We were lucky to escape from the Big Muddy
When the big fool said to push on.

Under considerable public pressure, and with public opinion turning against the War, CBS relented and in January 1968 Seeger appeared on the show, once again performing “Waist Deep”. WC watched that show, with the tight shots of Seeger’s face as he sang it, and that moment, more than anything else, cemented WC as an anti-war liberal.

Well, I’m not going to point any moral;
I’ll leave that for yourself
Maybe you’re still walking, you’re still talking
You’d like to keep your health.
But every time I read the papers
That old feeling comes on;
We’re — waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.

Seeger recorded hundreds of songs. Many are superior musically. Many are much more fun to sing. Although shouting the chorus of “Waist Deep” with Seeger had immense emotional satisfaction. But the allegory of “Waist Deep” is so clear and powerful that it remains WC’s favorite Seeger song.

Waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
Waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
Waist deep! Neck deep! Soon even a
Tall man’ll be over his head, we’re
Waist deep in the Big Muddy!
And the big fool says to push on!

Seeger’s banjo was famously emblazoned with the motto “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender.” But Pete Seeger himself never surrendered, never gave in to hate, and only death could make him stop singing.

In a concert in Chicago in 1975 he told us, “I usually quote Plato, who said: ‘It is very dangerous to allow the wrong kind of music in the republic.'” For six decades, Seeger brought us the wrong kind of music, and our republic is better and stronger for it.

Rest in Peace, Pete Seeger. You will not be forgotten.


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