Waist Deep in the Big Muddy

Richard Shindell’s new album, Vuelta, is great. (Vuelta means turn, reconsideration, or homecoming). I’ve been a Richard Shindell fan since I first saw him at a free folk festival at Harvard in 1996 or 1997 (anybody know what that festival was?). I’ve always preferred his live performances to his albums, though, because I find the full backup band on the album gets in the way. A lot of folk performers seem to like to record with backup bands, maybe because it makes it more interesting for them since they often tour solo—but I almost always prefer the solo acoustic performance.

Shindell has moved to Argentina since his last album, though, and this one is much more sparse by way of instrumentation. The album is also more brooding than his others—although Shindell has never been a lightweight pop songwriter by any standard—and Shindell’s outlook has clearly been made dark by world events since September 11.

My favorite song on the album is Shindell’s adaptation of Pete Seeger’s Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, a story about a World War II army training operation in Louisiana gone awry. For some reason, it only recently became obvious to me that this song is actually about Vietnam.

The song has fresh relevance now in the context of the Iraq war, even if you don’t buy into a simplistic “another Vietnam” analysis. Here is an excerpt (OGG file, 30 seconds, 630K) from the song that goes to the heart of the matter:

“Captain, sir, with all this gear
No man will be able to swim.”
“Sergeant, don’t be a Nervous Nellie,”
The Captain said to him.
“All we need is a little determination;
We’ll soon be on dry ground.”
We were waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the damn fool kept yelling, “Push on!”

Or, as Secretary Rumsfeld puts it: “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”