Yesterday, while Rosa and Juniper were in the bath, I put on Waist Deep in the Big Muddy and other Love Songs1 by Pete Seeger. It’s an album I used to listen to on repeat when I was a little kid (my best guess is that I was somewhere in the 7 to 9 range), but I’ve only listened to it once or twice in the past 20 years and… wow.
It’s interesting the songs/bits of songs I remember and those that I don’t. Most of the political messages went straight over my head.
For example: in the eponymous track “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”2 I remember thinking it was a kinda funny kinda scary story about being lead too deep by your commander. Oops! He drowned! But I have no memory of “every time I read the papers”; I just didn’t have any context by which to make sense of it.
There’s also a song that I have no memory of at all, though I’m sure I listened to it dozens (if not over a hundred) times: “My Name is Liza Kalvelage”3. Reading through the lyrics it sounds conversational, and the tune is definitely understated. It hit me very hard yesterday, listening to it while the kids squabbled over bath toys.
I wonder why I don’t hear songs like this nowadays. Songs like “Those Three Are On My Mind”4. The only recent example I’m aware of is Janelle Monáe’s similarly great “Hell You Talmbout”5. I think there are a lot of possible explanations that are more likely than “they don’t make ’em like they used to.”
I also wonder in what ways these songs informed my developing moral sense. I mean, yeah, most of it went over my head but “I’m gonna lay down my sword and sheild […] study war no more” was pretty clear, as was “I dreamed that all the world agreed to put an end to war” (which I think was one of my favorites). I also remember understanding the intent of the “girl’s side” of “Oh Yes I’d Climb”6, and I certainly remember having some proto-feminist views at age six or seven.
So was this formative, or was I drawn to the songs because I already felt this way?
Away from the political songs, there’s one bit in East Virgina where he sings of a woman:
on her breast she wore white lilies
where I longed to lay my head
and I remember very clearly being fascinated by that image. Like, clearly was leaning hetero even at age eight (I could point to earlier memories, but I’m specifically thinking about music here).
And if those songs were formative, what was I getting out of Urban Chipmunk7 (which I listened to ad nauseum around the same time), or The Holy Modal Rounders’ Too Much Fun!8 (another favorite) which had lyrics with drug references I wouldn’t get until high school:
Went for a walk and I just got back
I saw a junkie mother boosting Similac
With a baby in her arms
And her arms full of tracks 9
and one that didn’t hit me until college:
He’ll sell your heart on St. Mark’s Place
In glassine envelopes
He’ll cut it with a pig’s heart
And burn the chumps and dopes 10
What sort of impression did this make on me? Did it make any impression? Maybe I just liked the way it all sounded.