Pete Seeger is one of many Western artists to whom Cui Jian is compared, and with good reason. The two men are linked by their commitment to getting their music, and message, to as many people as possible, seeing in the art of songwriting, and the form of a song, a potent tool for reaching audiences.
With Seeger’s recent passing at the age of 95 and recent Cui Jian news, it seems reasonable to turn to a series of events that bring the comparison closer.
In 1967—when Cui Jian was six years old—Pete Seeger taped an appearance on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. It was a big deal: Seeger had been blacklisted by commercial television for seventeen years, and this was to be his return. He chose to play “some songs that had been sung by American soldiers in four different wars” as well as a new song he’d written—a song that Seeger had hoped would spread quickly, since, as he put it “People were being killed every day in Vietnam.” “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” is an allegorical song about a World War II captain that insists his soldiers ford a river the grunts know to be unfordable.
The final verse, according to The New York Times, was too hot for the network to handle:
Every time I read the paper, those old feelings come on
We are waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
Seeger told the Times that the network asked him to cut out the controversial verse, but he refused to play the song unless he could sing it the whole way through. The show, under pressure from the network, aired a “Big Muddy”-less edit of the show. The Smothers Brothers went to the media: “CBS censors our best jokes, they censored Seeger’s best song. It ain’t fair,” they said. A year later, Seeger returned to the Smothers’ show, and was allowed to sing the song:
A few similarities immediately spring to mind. First, as outlined above, Cui, like Seeger, is not averse to the idea of appearing on mainstream television—indeed, the two men seek out the mainstream media knowing that it is an unbeatably large platform.
But there’s more. Cui, too, got into trouble for singing a song about an army facing a muddy landscape. “Nanniwan” was a much-loved revolutionary song, written in 1943. Unlike “Big Muddy,” it celebrates the People’s Liberation Army’s experiences—in this case, making fertile an extremely dry area—but it does contain some dark undertones. Nanniwan was a success, to be sure, as an arid plot of land was transformed. But among the crops that grew there was poppy: The experiment was to produce opiates that would help the Communists achieve self-sufficiency. Cui Jian’s earliest performance of the song in the late-80s—after, recall, he had introduced the nation to yaogun with “Nothing to My Name,” a song that didn’t exactly inspire excitement in the authorities—saw a short ban from the stage; certainly it resulted from a combination of Nanniwan’s dark history and the chutzpah of a young guitar-slinger to perform an army song.
Cui Jian, “Nanniwan,” Yunnan Satellite TV, 2009
But the most recent Cui Jian news rings most familiar in relation to the “Big Muddy” saga: His run-in with CCTV and the mega-network’s Spring Festival Gala. Offered the chance to perform on the Big Show, Cui eagerly accepted. Until conditions were attached. Rather than not sing “Nothing to My Name,” Cui Jian turned down the offer.
Perhaps the network will eventually, a-la Smothers Brothers, give the man a second chance. Perhaps they won’t. Regardless, Cui’s song, like Seeger’s before him, is one that still needs to be heard. We know this because They want to keep it from the airwaves.