Why We Recorded
"Waist Deep in the Big Muddy"
Collected Musings of the
Rockabilly Space Force
It was back in 1942, Pete Seeger was a member of a good platoon. He served in the US Army from 1942 - 1945, initially as an aircraft mechanic. Later, the Army reassigned him to entertain the troops. When asked what he did in the Army, Pete often said, "I strummed my banjo." Either way, "he wore the uniform," as his military brethren and sisteren often say.
25 years later, Seeger performed on the Smothers Brothers television program, singing his Vietnam Protest song, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." He sang, "It was back in 1942, I was a member of a good platoon. We were on maneuvers in Louisiana, one night by the light of the moon...." Seeger's first inspiration for the song came from a newspaper photo of troops in Vietnam crossing a river, likely the Mekong. The troops were waist deep, and so were we metaphorically, as a country, in the quagmire of Vietnam.
In the years between his military service and the television debut of "Waist Deep," Seeger was blacklisted for pleading the First Amendment during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. In 1961, Seeger was convicted of Contempt of Congress and sentenced to 10 years in prison. A 1962 appeal overturned the conviction. But public opinion was worse. Seeger was labeled a communist. In 1960, the San Diego School Board attempted to cancel his concert at one of their schools unless Seeger committed to refrain from singing or talking about communism or overthrowing the US Government. Seeger again refused, and the ACLU sued, and the concert went on.
Still, Seeger lost recording contracts, television appearances, and more, and from that point on, until 1967, he performed mainly in classrooms and at summer camps, and he taught banjo.
In 1967, the Smothers Brothers convinced CBS to allow Seeger to return to television, and among the songs Seeger performed in front of their live audience was "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." Censors at CBS requested that Seeger omit the last verse of the song, but he refused, and CBS cut the song from the broadcast.
The above video is the original broadcast from the Smothers Brothers, which was censored by CBS. Pete is starting the intro to "Waist Deep" at about 2:55, and then it cuts to "Where Have All The Flowers Gone."
CBS founder William S. Paley had already tussled with President Johnson over network content, specifically the Smothers Brothers show, which lampooned Johnson. One skit put Johnson in such a rage that he phoned Paley at 3 a.m. to complain.
When CBS censored Seeger's performance, Tom Smothers leaked the incident to the New York Times, and a publicity campaign brought Seeger back to the show to re-record "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," this time to over 13 million television viewers.
Two days after Seeger's performance, Walter Cronkite called on Johnson to withdraw from Vietnam, and Johnson later declined to run for re-election in 1968.
"Well, I'm not going to point any moral,
I'll leave that for yourself
Maybe you're still walking,
maybe you're still talking and
You'd like to keep your health.
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."
"For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate."
~ Walter Cronkite
Above, The CBS broadcast of "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy", take 2.
As if this background isn't enough to want to cover one of the best protest songs in American history, when we got together as a band to rehearse in mid-March, with Covid-19 Stay-at-Home orders just beginning, we felt like we might be feeling and experiencing something similar.
Seeger once said, "Often a song will reappear several times in history, or in one's life, as there seems to be an appropriate time for it." That time, we feel, is now. Only just recently, on July 7, 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci said in an interview with The Guardian, that "we are still 'knee-deep' in the first wave" of Covid-19.
But back in March, as a band, we weren't sure how long the pandemic would last, wondering at one point if we could even finish the recording and video before the pandemic was over. Clearly, this was not a problem we needed to worry about, unfortunately.
We argued - for hours - about exactly how much our video content should make the connection between the leadership failures of Vietnam and the leadership failures of today, especially of the Trump Administration, during Covid-19. One discussion went on for several hours, with multiple interpretations of what the song could mean, and how it could be received.
Also, what does this song say about who we are as a band? Who is the Rockabilly Space Force? Our backstory is set 75-100 years into the future, and we haven't yet launched any kind of media that explains any of that (note: podcasts and comic books and more music - originals and covers - are all in the works).
In March, the questions about band identity and audience and political ramifications eventually faded to the background. Among us, we have liberal, progressive, moderate, and even some conservative viewpoints, and our goals with this song went beyond the typical marketing and creative goals of a band. Eventually, we chose to let the song and its original metaphors speak for themselves with minimal visual connections to today, although some of us feel that the song is even more applicable to Covid-19 and Trump than it was to Vietnam and Johnson.
Seeger himself was cautious about revealing his own reasons for writing the song - the reasons are in the song itself, after all. But even in this song, the controversial verse that CBS wanted him to censor, brings us back to the reasons why this song, now, is important:
"I'm not going to point any moral; I'll leave that for yourself. Maybe you're still walkin', maybe you're still talkin', and you'd like to keep your health. 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."
In today's echo chambers, society is isolated and siloed and polarized, but it's not so different in many ways from the 1960s, with its civil rights marches and wars and turmoil. We needed this song then, and as a band, we decided Pete Seeger's song is needed again, now, in the time of Covid. We're waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the Big Fool says to push on.
"We're knee deep in the
Big Muddy, and the Big Fool
says to push on!"