Waist Deep in the Big Muddy
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MeaningPresident Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964
"If we allow the Communists to win in Vietnam, it will become easier and more appetizing for them to take over other countries in other parts of the world. We will have to fight again someplace else—at what cost no one knows. That is why it is vitally important to every American family that we stop the Communists in South Vietnam." – President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1966
"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." – Pete Seeger, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," 1967
It was 1967, and Pete Seeger was fed up. He'd seen it all: World War II in the 1940s, red-baiting and McCarthyism in the 1950s, and now a big war against guerilla fighters in a tiny country marked by a growing death toll back home. Lyndon B. Johnson had taken over after President Kennedy's assassination in 1963, and when he was re-elected to the post in 1964 many had high hopes for Johnson's ability to navigate the country out of Vietnam before the going got bad. During the elections, President Johnson promised that he would not deploy ground troops in Vietnam. Oops. Just a few months into his presidency, he did exactly that. The decision was presented as inevitable, and some people would still argue that Johnson didn't really have a choice. But protest singer Pete Seeger thought otherwise.
So, he sat down and wrote an allegory about it. Actually, that's an over-simplification: he wrote a whole album about it in 1966, just as anti-war sentiment was starting to pick up around the country. But most people saw him as a long-time leftist and former Communist not to be taken too seriously. In 1967, he came back with another album, and a more subtle, more far-reaching anti-war message. "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" is a story about a training platoon in Louisiana during World War II. The platoon follows their captain into the middle of the Mississippi river in the middle of the night, even though the sergeant questions whether this is really the best way to go. "Don't be a Nervous Nellie," eggs the captain. And just after that, the captain is devoured by quick sand. Big oops.
The "Captain," of course, is Lyndon B. Johnson, who seemed to be plowing knee deep, then waist deep, then neck deep into the war in Vietnam despite drooping popular support. And, although Seeger didn't necessarily know this at the time, the "Nervous Nellie" might have been Robert MacNamara, the Secretary of Defense who had urged Kennedy towards war but later changed his tune, urging Johnson to ease up on the bombing of North Vietnam in 1967. Johnson forced MacNamara's resignation, playing the role of the captain who plows forth despite the words of his closest advisors. "It was an allegory," Seeger told a biographer, "and a very obvious one" (Alec Wilkinson, The Protest Singer, 98).
The first thing that happened after Seeger wrote the song was actually quite absurd. Seeger was on tour in Europe, and he went to Russia for a spell. He helped a New York Times reporter, Peter Grose, slip into a student concert in Moscow with him. Seeger sang "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" to the group of students, and within days, a piece came out in the New York Times with this headline: "Seeger Sings Anti-American Song in Moscow" (Allan M. Winkler, To Everything There Is a Season: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song, 120).
We'll let you decide whether the song itself can fairly be called "anti-American" (Pete Seeger called up the editor of the Times and let him know his views on the matter). The point is, Seeger was almost blocked that very month from playing a show at the high school in his hometown, Beacon, NY, but he pushed back against the ridiculousness of the controversy and won. He was used to this sort of stuff: after all, Seeger had been subject to inflammatory anti-Communist media treatment since 1950, when he first started to gain mainstream popularity as a part of his folk revival band, the Weavers.
Let's go back a couple decades and get the whole story. First of all, Pete Seeger never really wanted to be famous. He had a pretty strong "normal guy" persona and a lot of humility, and he happily spent the first eleven years of his career traveling a low-key left-wing circuit, playing benefit shows and union concerts. He did believe very strongly in the need for a broad revival of folk music, and he pursued that dream first with Woody Guthrie and the Almanac Singers in the early 1940s, and then with the Weavers, who became famous for relatively innocuous songs like "Good Night Irene" and "On Top of Old Smoky."
Not really rebellious stuff when you look back on it, but in 1950, just before the Weavers closed their first big record deal, Pete Seeger's name showed up on a list of people associated with "Communist influence in radio and television." The record contract was shredded, and although the Weavers went on playing together, this episode marked the beginning of trouble for Seeger related to his previous involvement with Communism and union organizing (unlike a lot of those attacked on these lists, he was an actual Communist Party member until 1949, but left because he didn't care strongly about party affiliation). A few years later, in 1955, Seeger was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Senator Joseph McCarthy had already been censured for going too far with his dramatic accusations of public figures, but HUAC's interrogations went on. It seemed that the goal of the committee was less to actually rat out real threats to U.S. security, and more to continually reinforce anti-Communist ideology—using superstars and high profile Hollywood names to show America that Communism would not be tolerated.
Despite his Communist affiliations, Seeger did not make himself an easy target. Rather than pleading the Fifth (a lot of the people who were called to testify used the Fifth Amendment, which grants the right not to testify against oneself in court, as a grounds for refusing to appear), he went before the committee willingly and simply refused to answer questions that would incriminate himself or others. In effect, he pled the First Amendment, freedom of speech and expression. He stated: "I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this." HUAC charged him with contempt of Congress, an offense that got him a one-year prison sentence in 1961. A higher court promptly dismissed the charges, but the Committee continued to investigate accused Communists with the support of the FBI until 1975.
Seeger's courage in front of HUAC made him something of a hero to those who opposed the entire Red Scare mentality, but it didn't prevent him from getting blacklisted, a punishment that ended up being worse for his newly launched solo career than a year in jail probably would have been. Blacklisting meant that Hollywood studios and producers kept a secret list of performers who were thought to be Communists. The upper management refused these performers jobs in order to avoid being accused of Communist associations, and nobody knew for sure whether or not they were on the list, which was a perfect setup for lots of rumors and backstabbing. Although a 1962 lawsuit made blacklisting illegal, its effects lingered, especially for the likes of Seeger, whose political associations had never been particularly secret. Seeger was prevented from going on network TV until 1967—a full seventeen years in exile since his brief national fame with the Weavers.
According to one book, "During this period, nearly every folk musician of any consequence performed on television, except Seeger. They tended to divide into two camps: those who would appear, and those who wouldn't unless Seeger was included" (Wilkinson 86). Seeger was once invited to sing at a televised White House dinner for President Kennedy, and then disinvited because advertisers were afraid to sponsor a broadcast with such a controversial figure on it.
In the meantime, something else happened. It relates to Communism, and the Red Scare, and Pete Seeger, and our entire nation's history. Can you guess? Yeah, we're talking about the war in Vietnam.
The U.S. actually started getting involved in Vietnam in the late 1940s, as supporters of the occupying French forces (it was still called Indochina back then). The Vietnamese fought for independence from the French, and in 1954, they won—but the nation that remained was divided down the middle. The North Vietnamese were organized under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, who advocated unification under one Communist regime; the South Vietnamese were organized under Ngo Din Diem, a similarly authoritarian leader who opposed Communism and had U.S. support. U.S. involvement in Vietnam continued, but now it was under the banner of fighting global Communism.
The early 1960s saw the gradual escalation of what we now know as the Vietnam War, and at first, most people supported U.S. intervention. We're guessing this is probably in part because of the strong anti-Communist sentiment in the country after nearly 15 years of public Communist-pummeling. There was a lot of fear about the global threat of Communism, especially Soviet Communism, and North Vietnam was symbolic of all the things that could go wrong if Communism was not defeated. But as the decade wore on, and more and more Americans were sent to war, a clean "victory" in Vietnam looked less and less possible. Even those who were not pacifists or usually inclined to oppose war started to wonder whether U.S. involvement was really worth it. There were tens of thousands of American deaths and tons of resources going into Vietnam, but the situation seemed to be getting worse and worse.
In 1967, things really started to heat up. Martin Luther King, Jr., by then a full-fledged Civil Rights hero, led tens of thousands through the streets of New York City in protest against the war. Vietnam Veterans Against the War was formed, a group that would become one of the most important and symbolic voices in the anti-war movement. In general polls, opposition to the war crept slowly up towards a majority (by the end of 1968, 54 percent of Americans believed that sending troops to Vietnam had been a mistake). Even Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara, one of the war's architects, privately expressed his doubts about the war to President Lyndon Johnson, famously writing in a letter: "The picture of the world's greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 noncombatants a week while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one." And yet by the end of the year, the U.S. had 485,000 troops in Vietnam and was escalating involvement, rather than de-escalating.
As it turned out, this moment of shifting sentiments was Pete Seeger's moment to shine. He considers "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" one of his best songs, and he actually wrote his own version of the story:
"In 1967 I wrote what I thought was a real good song, and I knew there wasn't time for it to get around the country. People were being killed every day in Vietnam. I had a recording contract with Columbia Records at that time, and my friends there even agreed to put out a record of it; but the sales department just laughed at us both. The records stayed on the shelves and weren't even sent to the stores."
No one would put "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" on the shelves, believing it was too controversial to even bother with. So Seeger decided to reach out for attention in a surprising way—through network TV (quoted here):
"Two young comedians had a successful television show, and they asked their bosses if I could be a guest on their show. The Smothers Brothers were turned down by CBS TV at first, but finally they said O.K. I flew out to California and sang some songs that had been sung by American soldiers in four different wars-the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War I, and lastly this song, 'Waist Deep in the Big Muddy' (…) Son of a gun, when the show was supposed to be played on the air, the song had been scissored out of the tape by the higher-ups at CBS Television."
Not surprisingly, CBS censored him. It was his first time back on network television since 1950, and he was still pushing the envelope a little too far. But the Smothers Brothers were big supporters of Seeger, and they used the media to push back against the station:
"Now the Smothers Brothers did a clever thing. They took their argument to the newspapers and they got lots of free publicity. They said, 'CBS censors our best jokes, they censored Seeger's best song. It ain't fair.' Finally in the month of January, 1968, the word came from New York, 'O.K., O.K., you can sing the song if you want.' On 48 hours' notice I flew out to California, taped the song, and this time 7 million people saw it and even got some extra newspaper publicity. Only one station, I think, in Detroit, scissored the last verse out of the tape."
Seeger got his way, and "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" was aired on national television in 1968. That very year, opposition to the Vietnam War became the majority opinion, and Lyndon B. Johnson announced that he wouldn't be running for reelection. Although the war didn't end for five more years, Seeger likes to think "Waist Deep" made some contribution to the anti-war effort:
"Did the song do any good? No one can prove a damned thing. It took tens of millions of people speaking out, before the Vietnam War was over. A defeat for the Pentagon, but a victory for the American people."