American folksinger and activist Pete Seeger died on January 27 at the age of 94. Seeger was one of the key figures in folk music when Bob Dylan hit Greenwich Village in 1960, and that’s the main reason I know who Seeger is. Which is a way of saying that, though my parents listened to folk music, some, they didn’t listen to that Commie Seeger.
Mind you, I don’t know that they had that attitude toward him; it might just be that they didn’t like his voice or his music. Seeger, from the point of view of the generation slightly older than mine that introduced me to some of the music of the Sixties, was already a sort of grand old man. And because he was a folksinger who sang all kinds of folk songs, it was unlikely that one could listen to folk and not hear something by him, or at least written or popularized by him. For instance, the Kingston Trio did “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” but in our house we had the version recorded by The Brothers Four. Regardless, everyone knew this song, written by Seeger, about the flowers gone because the girls pick them, the girls gone because they got married, the husbands gone because they went to war, and, dead, return to flowers. When you’re young and you hear that song you immediately see how a poetic conceit—the life cycle—can be made to bear a message. I'll let you decide whether you see the men marching off to war and the girls marching off to marriage as being distressingly similar.
My own best memory of Pete Seeger is not that strong as a memory, but it is a point of reference. In 1968, Seeger performed on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which everyone in our house watched as we had a number of Smothers Brothers LPs, and the song he sang always stuck with me, though I didn’t remember the song exactly. “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” got adapted by us as a kind of playground song, but all we did was the chorus, which we altered: foot deep, knee deep, waist deep, chest deep, and each time “the big fool said to push on,” until neck deep and “the big fool was all gone.” It was a little inexorable tale about how the leader gets to the bad stuff first; we’re following him but he's the one who drowns. That’s not how Seeger’s song goes, exactly, but the big fool leading the troop to ford “the Big Muddy” does indeed drown. Seeger then steps back and relates the little tale to the current situation: “we’re waist deep in the Big Muddy and the big fool says to push on.” Of course, it was taken as a commentary on Vietnam, with Lyndon Johnson as the big fool. Soon that big fool would be gone, but the war wouldn’t be—something the song might realize inasmuch as the “nervous Nellie” sergeant who keeps protesting the maneuver claims he’s in charge at the song’s end.
Anyway, Seeger’s performance aired in February, shortly after the start of the so-called Tet Offensive, which was a major tactical success for the Vietcong. In other words, Seeger’s song aired during the time when the general perception of the war went from perceiving us as “waist deep” (“returning were as tedious as go o’er,” as Macbeth might say) to perceiving us as “neck deep,” and almost in over our heads. The following month Johnson announced he would not seek nor accept the nomination of his party for the office of president, effectively throwing in the towel and reducing the Democratic Party to a shamble of upstarts and old guards and leaving the ground open for a quarterback sneak by ol’ Tricky Dick himself. Thus was one big fool replaced by a bigger fool.
The only other Seeger song that comes to immediate mind—other than those songs others have covered, such as The Byrds’ version of his “Turn, Turn, Turn,” or the songs The Boss covered on We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions—is “Little Boxes.”
In high school art class one day, our instructors played us this song. It’s a little ditty about conformity and—a bit like the girls marching into marriage and the guys marching out to war—takes its aim at everyone going to university and getting the same kinds of jobs and living in the same kinds of houses. It’s not as clever as “Flowers” (Seeger didn’t write it, Malvina Reynolds did, but he had the hit with it and it’s his version I knew), but it gets its point across—though I have to admit that the bit about “summer camps” makes me think of “socialist summer camps and the Ben Shahn drawings on the wall”—from Annie Hall (Shahn did the cover for one of Seeger’s LPs, so). Which is a way of saying, I guess, that, by the time I reached the age of reason, the great anti-conformity movements of the Sixties also seemed rather conformist.
Which is why Seeger didn’t do much for me. The Dylan I gravitated toward was the one who had already ditched the “folk conscience” moniker that came at him via Seeger and others. He had led his own march away and into what became yet another conformist brand: Pop. One thing you can say about Dylan, though, is that he never “looks just the same” . . . not the same as anyone else and not even the same as himself.
Thinking about my parents, though, I would expect that my father, who served in WWII as a marine, would enjoy the tale of the deluded “big fool” who led his troop into peril, only to be shown up by a sergeant; and I imagine my parents would also like the implied notion of “Little Boxes,” that going to university just makes you a little ticky-tacky phony. Though, of course, we were living in little boxes in tract housing, so. Avoiding the conveyor belt of formal education was no way out.
Which is, I suppose, why the art teachers played us the song. Like maybe one or two of us might figure out some other way. Who knows? Maybe the song is what helped them become art teachers.
Anyway, I was never happy in suburbia, the subject of that song. And I soon enough became my own big fool. Eventually the big fool said to shove off, and I did.