Waist Deep in the Big Muddy
Pete Seeger got his start as a young man with a relatively innocent interest in the revival of traditional music, but ended up as one of the most iconic protest singers of the entire twentieth century. Born in 1919, he launched into a life as a traveling folk singer in 1939. During the 1940s he hooked up with Woody Guthrie, possibly the coolest folk singer in history, and the two became known all over for playing at union demonstrations and the like. Unlike Woody, who had a pretty endless supply of unidentifiable charm, Pete was not exactly "cool." Awkward, tall, and rarely self-promoting, he eventually succeeded not through the sort of hazy legend-hatching that hovered around Guthrie, but through a long, deep commitment—both to the genre known as folk music and to the leftist politics he advocated throughout his life. Pete Seeger was shamed in the 1940s for supporting unions, shamed in the 1950s for associating with Communists, and shamed in the 1960s for speaking out against Vietnam. Plus, folk music was outsider music for much of Pete's early career, something for Commie sympathizers and hopeless Bohemians whose whole vision of the country went against the conservative modernism of the 1950s. Folk was, quite simply, not popular enough to be cool.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the 1960s. With the help of popular young stars like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez (whose pretty faces didn't hurt a bit), folk music actually did have a comeback. In fact, suddenly it was all the rage. Seeger was already past middle age, and he found himself turned into a hero. His songs (along with Woody Guthrie's) became standards for countless kids who started picking up guitars and banjos and learning folk music. And his courageous political statements, especially with songs like "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," made him a great folk figure for all those 1960s hippies who were looking for acoustic-instrument-bearing role models.
Although folk music has arguably declined in general coolness factor in the decades since then, it has definitely become an accepted part of our cultural fabric. The 1990s saw Seeger getting showered with lifetime achievement awards and special medals (he was even awarded Cuba's highest honor, the Felix Varela Medal, in 1999). Bruce Springsteen (the king of cool for classic rock fans) did a whole Pete Seeger tribute album in 2006. And Barack Obama (the king of cool for new millennium Democrats) invited Seeger and Springsteen to sing together at his inauguration in 2008. But probably the most amazing thing about Pete Seeger's legacy is the fact that he continued to oppose war just as he did in 1968—and sometimes in the least rock-star way possible. Here's a story, in the words of a friend from the small New York town of Beacon where Seeger has lived for many decades, named John Cronin, that illustrates Seeger's Calling Card better than anything we could say:
"About two winters ago, here on Route 9 outside Beacon, one winter day it was freezing—rainy and slushy, a miserable winter day—the war in Iraq is heating up, and the country's in a poor mood. I'm driving south, and on the other side of the road I see from the back a tall, slim figure in a hood and coast. I can tell it's Pete. He's standing there all by himself, and he's holding up a big piece of cardboard that clearly has something written on it (…) He's getting wet. He's holding the homemade sign above his head—he's very tall, and his chin is raised the way he does when he sings—and he's turning the sign in a semicircle, so that drivers can see it as they pass, and some people are honking and waving at him, and some people are giving him the finger. He's eighty-four years old (...) and obviously he wants people to notice what he's doing, he wants to make an impression, anyway, whatever they are, he doesn't call the newspapers and say, 'Here's what I'm going to do, I'm Pete Seeger.' (…) He's far more modest than that. He would never make a fuss. He's just standing out there in the cold and the sleet like a scarecrow getting drenched. I go a little bit down the road, so that I can turn around and come back, and when I get him in view again, this solitary and elderly figure, I see that what he's written on the sign is 'Peace'" (Wilkinson 119).