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).
"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.