It was back in nineteen forty-two
I was a member of a good platoon
Seeger uses a scene from a World War II training camp as an allegory for the Vietnam War.
Incidentally, Seeger himself had actually been drafted in World War II. At the time, he was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, and the Party had called for staunch international opposition to fascism. This meant opposing Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
So, a bit paradoxically for American communists, a commitment to anti-fascism translated to fighting in the U.S. military. Seeger and his fellow anti-fascist folk music icon Woody Guthrie were both deployed and both went willingly to war.
Little did they know how harshly the U.S. government would turn against any and all communists in the years to come.
We were knee deep in the Big Muddy
Pop quiz: Which river does Seeger mean when he says "the Big Muddy"?
Actually, this is kind of a trick question. The simple answer is the Mississippi, which has often been called the Big Muddy (rightly so: if you've ever been there, it is pretty obviously big and muddy).
But there's actually a river named the Big Muddy. That much smaller waterway in southwest Illinois flows into the Mississippi river north of Cairo. Yeah, that's right, Cairo, Illinois (pronounced Cay-ro). Still, the answer to the pop quiz is the Mississippi. Now you just know something about the geography of southern Illinois.
Sergeant, don't be a Nervous Nellie
"Nervous Nellie" is now slang for anyone who is timid, fearful, or wimpy. But it originated as a (rather harsh) nickname for one real person...and he (yep, not she) didn't much care for it.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the original "Nervous Nellie" was Frank Kellogg, a United States Senator from Minnesota who later served as Secretary of State under the Coolidge Administration of the late 1920s.
His biggest accomplishment was the half-eponymous Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, an international treaty that basically made war illegal. A nice idea, sure, and one that won Kellogg the 1929 Nobel Peace Prize. Unfortunately, though, the treaty didn't do anything to stop militarists like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini from taking power just a few years later, leading straight to a devastating Second World War before the end of the 1930s.
The Kellogg-Briand Pact has stood out as a bad example of naive idealism ever since. Nervous Nellie, indeed.
The Sergeant said, 'Sir, are you sure
This is the best way back to the base?'
At the time that Seeger released this song, there was actually a perfect real-life character playing the role of the Sergeant: Someone who quietly said to Lyndon Johnson, um, maybe this is not such a good idea.
That person, Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara, had been instrumental in encouraging U.S. involvement in Vietnam when he came onto the job working for President John F. Kennedy.
But in August 1967, the month "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" was released, MacNamara himself decided that bombing North Vietnam was futile, a bad idea only bound to get worse for everyone involved. He was concerned about the image of the United States and about the increasingly clear possibility of a U.S. failure in the region (he probably also should have been concerned about civilian deaths and human rights violations).
Lyndon B. Johnson asked MacNamara to resign as Secretary of Defense that year.
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 doesn't name any names, but this last verse makes sure that his 1968 audience knows which "big fool" he's talking about.
The "big fool" he mocks in this song is very clearly Lyndon B. Johnson, who ran for president in 1964 full of campaign promises not to escalate the war in Vietnam—and then escalated every step of the way. The "Big Muddy," then, is the war itself. While some of the events of the late 1960s may have occurred as a result of an inevitable quagmire that started way before his time, Johnson claimed a fair amount of responsibility for pushing the U.S. deeper and deeper into a war that was both unpopular and ultimately unwinnable.
In 1968, Johnson announced that he would not run for a second term, and many took this as an admission of his own inability to navigate the Vietnam situation.
Is there a "big fool" for your generation? Well, it depends on your beliefs—which is what makes this song really work as an allegory. Rather than name names, Seeger lets you fill in the blanks.