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To Pete Seeger (Turn, Turn, Turn), There Was a Season - On 'The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour'
January 28, 2014  | By David Bianculli  | 3 comments

Pete Seeger, who died Monday at age 94, ended a 17-year prime-time TV blacklist of his talents by performing triumphantly in 1967 on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour…

It was one of the best, most significant, most moving musical performances ever seen on that 1967-69 CBS variety series. Seeger, a seminal figure in the folk movement as a member of The Weavers in the 1950s, had been victimized as a target of McCarthyism, accused in the Communist witch-hunting publication Red Channels as one of hundreds of show-business figures with alleged Communist sympathies.

Seeger was denied work on television, except for a pair of unsponsored Sunday morning programs, for the next 17 years. Then, near the end of the first, unexpectedly successful season of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, producers were approached by CBS Chairman William S. Paley with a personal request: please quit making fun of then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had a habit of phoning CBS executives directly to complain. Paley asked what the brothers might like, that Paley might offer, in exchange for complying with his request. Paley was told that Tom and Dick Smothers had asked for Pete Seeger to be booked as a guest star on the show, but were told he couldn’t be hired. Paley said he could, and that was that – at least at first.

For the opening show of the second season in 1967, Seeger reported for duty with a collection of songs, including his own “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” a trio of sing-along numbers, and his newest composition: “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” an anti-Vietnam War allegory.

This was at the height of Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War, and when Seeger performed the song at the afternoon rehearsal for the show, CBS censors balked immediately. Seeger performed the song as part of his set during the evening taping as well – but when the Season 2 premiere was televised the following week, on Sept. 10, 1967, “Waist Deep” had been cut from the show. Tom Smothers immediately went to the press, giving interviews about how CBS had mistreated a musical institution and violated the spirit of the creative control the Smothers Brothers had been promised by CBS.

As months went by, Tom kept giving interviews, as did Seeger, protesting the excision of Seeger’s segment. Meanwhile, current events were quickly changing national attitudes about Vietnam significantly. In February 1968, CBS gave the Smothers Brothers permission to invite Seeger back on the series – and, specifically, to sing the song the network had considered inappropriate five months earlier. Seeger agreed, and in his second appearance that season on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, performed a medley of anti-war songs dating from different wars in American history, followed by a proudly defiant, emotionally gripping version of “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.”

His Feb. 25, 1968 performance is one of my favorite moments from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

The appearance’s final, ironic punch line was that “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” while never mentioning Johnson by name, was an obvious attack on LBJ and his war policy. When Seeger sings “Waist deep in the Big Muddy / And the big fool says to push on,” there is little doubt about whom, or what, Seeger is referring.

What a song. What a moment. What a man.

When I started work on my 2009 book about the Smothers Brothers – Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of ‘The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour’ the first person I interviewed, in 1992, was Pete Seeger. It was a practical as well as biographical decision, because Seeger was 73 years old then, and I was worried that he might not live that much longer.

I shouldn’t have worried. Pete Seeger lived another 21 years.

“Singing on The Smothers Brothers was one of the high points in my long life,” Seeger told me back in 1992. “I look back on it with pleasure…

“Maybe the song did some good,” he added with understandable pride, and a little impishness. “President Johnson decided not to run again a month after I finally got it on the air.”

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Mark N
Dear David
I am saddened by the loss of this most important person. Love his music and have sung his songs but I also have a personal connection
When I was 10 my little brother and I went Pete's summer camp in Vermont...
Camp Higgly Hill, to be precise.(Also referred to as that Commie Camp) He'd come to camp once a week and to this day I treasure outdoor fireside music sessions with him....We'd sing rounds and make a mighty noise. first time I played a guitar. He'd talk to us too...what a nice man with a message and music can do to a life....I went into music...played, wrote and went on to produce bands. A major influence on my life has passed. I think I will play turn,turn,turn on my Uke
and do a little remembering....Thanks Pete RIP
Jan 30, 2014   |  Reply
David-I was hoping you would chime in on the importance of Seeger on the Smothers Brothers show( the centerpiece of drama in the Smothers saga).Seegar compared his work to folks trying to fill a bucket of sand with teaspoons of sand while the bucket was leaking sand from holes in the bottom.With so many teaspoons,the bucket was bound to fill one day,no matter what was leaking on the bottom.Pete's story is longer but the point is there:We ALL must grab our teaspoons...
Just found out that Pete covered Phil Och's Draft Dodger Rag,a tune Tom & Dick did on the show with George Segal.Hope that Phil & Dave Van Ronk were there with Woody Guthrie to greet Pete Monday.
Jan 29, 2014   |  Reply
Mel McKeachie
Great column, David. I've been a fan of Pete's since his appearances at Oberlin in my 1954-57 days there. The Smothers Brothers show was indeed one of many high points in his career.
Jan 28, 2014   |  Reply
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