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Remembering Pete Seeger: “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”

Pete Seeger has died. As with any artist who actively supported Stalinism (or Nazism or Fascism, for that matter), Seeger’s past should not be washed away in hazy tributes to his life and career. Yet just because he chose to align himself with a regime that caused the deaths of millions of people does not mean we should forget that he was at times an impressive artist. Seeger was eventually to distance himself half-heartedly from a long-dead Stalin, but he remained a communist and anti-capitalist to the end.

By far my favorite performance of Seeger’s was this one from the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” on CBS (courtesy of YouTube).

Waist Deep in the Big Muddy (and the Big Fool Says to Push On)

Written in 1967 and originally censored by CBS from a September 1967 Smothers Brothers broadcast, this song (and its “Big Fool”) would have been understood to be about Lyndon Johnson. A month after the broadcast in February 1968, Johnson — stung in part by a modest win (as a write-in candidate) in the New Hampshire primary — announced that he would not run for reelection.

Though Seeger could write with faux-sweet archness (e.g., “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”), I guess part of what I like about his performance of “Waist Deep” is that here he sings as if he really means it. I remember being shocked by the performance, though it probably looks pretty tame by today’s standards of TV.

With a musician such as Pete Seeger, it is worth remembering that good artists are not necessarily good people, and bad people are not necessarily bad artists.

Jim Lindgren is a law professor at Northwestern University, with a BA from Yale and a JD and a PhD in (quantitative) sociology from the University of Chicago. He is a cofounder of the Section on Scholarship of the Association of American Law Schools and a former chair of its Section on Social Science and the Law.

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