"When I get upon a stage, I look on my job as trying to tell a story. I use songs to illustrate my story and dialogue between songs to carry the story forward," Pete Seeger once said, quoted in his biography at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" is a great example of a song that tells a story, and it is also a very straightforward example of the literary form known as allegory.
Allegory occurs when a story or poem has an entire second meaning, sort of like a shadow story. For example, George Orwell's Animal Farm, a book about a bunch of talking pigs, is widely understood to be an an allegory for the rise of Communism in Russia. Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, in which the main character turns into a disgusting cockroach overnight, may be an allegory about human selfishness and family relationships. Moby Dick, a story about a whale, could apparently be an allegory for any number of strange things. The point is, even if the story can be read literally, the entire thing has a possible secondary meaning or message. The literal version of the story is just one layer.
"Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" is most literally a World War II song, not a Vietnam War song. It is the story of a platoon training in Louisiana, whose captain, "the big fool," leads them into the river to ford it in the middle of the night. Even though the sergeant warns the captain that they should probably turn around, the captain presses on, taking the whole platoon with him. In short order, the captain goes down under a bunch of quick sand. The sergeant takes charge of the platoon and turns them around just in time to save the rest, but it's a close call. In the second-to-last verse, Seeger comes close to spelling out a moral message, but still avoids any explicit mention of political issues of the time:
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.
Taken very generally, the song could be an allegory for almost any political mistake made by a big-shot leader. For example, some would point to the politicians that waded into the massive budget deficit over the last few decades—the deficit is the "Big Muddy" and [insert politician's name here] is the "big fool." Others would point to George W. Bush's somewhat infamous decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003 under the pretense of looking for weapons of mass destruction. Still others see President Barack Obama as the "big fool" wading into a muddy world of sweeping reforms and federal spending. In other words, at any given moment in U.S. history there is usually the equivalent of a Captain leading the country somewhere, and a Sergeant warning against it. That makes the song more powerful than it would be if Seeger had named any names, because its message can be transferred to our own times and to our own political beliefs.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and it seems like "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" would not have quite as much traction these days if the Vietnam War was largely looked back on as a success for the U.S. But, true to the song's thinly veiled prediction, the U.S. did not actually win the war, and thousands went down in the fighting. The result is that, even for those who still believe that "the big fool" was right to push the war forward, the song is a pointed allegory for its time.