Waist Deep in the Big Muddy
The song tells the story of a platoon wading in a river in Louisiana on a practice patrol in 1942. Imperiously ignoring his sergeant's concerns, the captain orders the platoon to continue with himself in the lead, until they are finally up to their necks. Suddenly, the Captain drowns and the sergeant instantly orders the unit to turn back to the original shore. It turns out the Captain was not aware that the river was deeper with a joining stream upriver. The narrator declines to state an obvious moral, but intimates from what he has read in the paper that his nation itself is being led into similar peril by authoritarian fools. Each verse ends with a line noting that "the big fool said to push on", except for the final verse, which changes to the present tense, and the fourth verse which says "the big fool dead and gone". The story is similar to the Ribbon Creek incident, which occurred in 1956.
The song was considered symbolic of the Vietnam War and President Lyndon Johnson's policy of escalation, then widely seen as pushing the United States deeper into the increasingly unpopular war. The captain's criticism of a dissenting sergeant as a "Nervous Nelly" in the song's third verse appears to mimick Johnson's epithet for critics of the war. Seeger often performed the song at concerts and rallies, and in late 1967 he was invited to perform on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Seeger chose to perform "Big Muddy," and sang the song on the taping of the CBS show in September, 1967 but CBS management objected to its political tone, and censored the song prior to broadcast. Following the strong support from the show's hosts, CBS later relented, and allowed Seeger to come back and sing the song on the Brothers' February 25, 1968, show. This broadcast is included on the DVD The Best of the Smothers Brothers.
The song was translated into French by Graeme Allwright under the title "Jusqu'à la ceinture".
The song was translated into Russian by Alexander Dolsky who performed the song in concerts in the 1980s during the Soviet war in Afganistan which has been referred to as the "Soviet Union's Vietnam." The song was released on a 1988 LP "Landscape in a frame", later reissued on CD.
- Lyrics of Waist Deep in the Big Muddy
- Seeger documentary, includes this song
- Seeger's account of the song's composition and original television appearance
- Destler, Gelb and Lake. Our Own Worst Enemy - The Unmaking of American Foreign Policy (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1984), 62.