Saturday, January 02, 2010

9: Old Song With No Contemporary Relevance Whatsoever


ZZ said...

Hear hear! If only those fancy-pants educated people, with all their "book learnin'", would just pay attention to "the common man". Why then, we'd still have polio, be cooking with coal, and avoiding tomatoes 'cause they're poisonous. After all, the only thing we need is "common sense". I hope the surgeon who cuts open my chest has plenty of common sense, as opposed to useless book learnin'.

Greg G said...

Here are the lyrics -

I am wondering which of them inspired ZZ's response? It is a puzzle for the ages.

ZZ said...


The officer was a "big fool" and tried to lead the men to their deaths with his fancy college education, whereas the Sergeant knew better, presumably because he had the common sense of the common man. Therefore, common sense always trumps formal learning, QED. Had the officer realized this, he would still be alive. He need only have thought: "My subordinate has a different opinion! I must necessarily be blinded by hubris! Retreat!" Heck, that thought jumps into most of our minds a hundred times a day!

The fact that the entire incident was a freak occurrence that had more to do with which part of the river the two men happened to have seen before is apparently irrelevant.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Yes. And the silver pennies that the Good Samaritan left with the innkeeper would have been better spent installing CCTV cameras along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. But somehow I don't think that that's the point of the story.

Phil Masters said...

The funny thing is, I entirely agree with ZZ that educated understanding is more useful than "common sense", especially when the latter is just being used as a term for prejudice and stock assumptions. I just don't see that this is what the song is about, in specific or in general.

It's about a clash between self-important ignorance (with a side-order of machismo) clashing with informed competence. The "educated" character in that story is the sergeant. Admittedly, his education here happens to be practical rather than formal, but hey, whatever works. If I want advice on surgery, I'll ask a surgeon; if I want to know about fording a muddy river in the middle of the night, I'll happily take advice from a sergeant of infantry.

Was the officer college educated? The song doesn't say, but does it matter? If he was, he hadn't learned the important lesson about assimilating useful information from reliable sources. I doubt that Seeger has anything against book learnin'; okay, he dropped out of Harvard, but look up his family background if you're interested.

To be sure, there's also an element of class-based chippiness in the song; Seeger clearly does have something against self-important fools in office who get other people killed, and apparently reckons that there are a lot of them. It must also be one of the few folk/protest songs out there with a possibly-homicidal army sergeant as its hero, but heck, sure, equal rights for officer-fragging sergeants.

Andrew Rilstone said...

The Captain makes a reasonable decision: "lets walk across this river, it's so shallow we'll only get our feet wet." Each time the facts change - we'll only get our legs wet, at least our heads are above water - he refuses to change his mind, and the more obviously wrong he becomes, the harder it is for him to turn back without loosing face.

The point of the song is to vividly an amusingly illustrate the proposition "People would often sooner die, and cause other people to die, than to admit that they made a mistake". That's the only point, so far as I can see. The relative levels of education of the officers, or whether it is quite fair to the crocidiles to be doing military training in a swmap is outside of the scope of the text.

The last stanza, where Seeger refuses to draw a moral, invites the audience to apply it to the Vietnam war: "It looked like a good idea at the beginning, it has turned out not to be, and the only reason we are still there is that after this long we would loose face by admitting our mistake and pulling out." The current blogger has repeated the joke in an amusing and witty way by claiming that he doesn't see a moral which could be drawn about any present day conflict.

There is, as we have said in this forum in the past, NO POINT in trying to read a parable as if it were an allegory.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Everyone knows that Woody Guthrie wrote "This Machine Kills Fascists" on his guitar. Apparently Pete Seeger wrote "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender" on his banjo.