In the October of 1955, while Pete Seeger was plane bound to Oberlin College, the rest of the world seemed to be advancing in nuclear weaponry and a second red scare was erupting. The pentagon had announced their plans to develop intercontinental Ballistic Missiles armed with nuclear weapons, and First Lady Mammie Eisenhower had just launched the first nuclear-powered submarine, in the progression of the Vietnam war. 479,668,807,311 men had died by the conclusion of the war. A whole generation lost.
A few years prior, when Seeger was a trained airplane mechanic in the Pacific U.S Army (later reassigned to be musical entertainment for troops) he had picked up a book called And quiet flows the Don (1934). The Mikhail Sholokhov novel tells the story of the Don River in Russia and Cossacks who lived along it in the 19th century. The song that the Cossack soldiers sing while traveling to join the Czar’s army were almost a preview of Where have all the flowers gone? For the Oberlin students at First Church.
Where are the flowers? The girls plucked them/ Where are the girls? They’re all married/ Where are the men? They’re all in the army
The song speaks of the cycle of human nature on war. Describing life as both happy and as sad, for there is the joy in picking flowers, marrying, and becoming a solider. But then follows the death of the soldiers. As the graveyards turn to flowers, of what is to come is disguised. Though a folk song, Where have all the flowers gone? has some features of the Ubi Sunt tradition; the rhetorical Where? and meditation on death is taken from the Latin phrase ‘Ubi sunit qui nos fuerunt?’, meaning ‘Where are those who were before us?’
Though a cycle song, the Seeger track also has a ‘domino theory’ sense to it; the flower petals had fallen after the girls had picked them, the girls who picked the flowers had fallen in love, and the husbands that had married the girls became fallen soldiers. While President Eisenhower had given his Domino theory speech, Senator Joseph McCarthy began hearings investigating the US Army for being ‘soft’.
Seeger had performed the song in 1955, but it wasn’t released until five years later, on ‘The rainbow quest’ album, a version that had an extra two verses than the Oberlin draft. One of the students who had heard the Oberlin draft would later be best known as ‘The song finder’, and would complete the two extra verses.
Seeger annually visited the Camp Woodland in Phoenicia,New York, where Joe Hickerson was a camp counsellor for the summer in the august of 1960. Hickerson took the song to the camp kids, gave it some rhythm, and soon enough the song became so catchy that the children began to make their own version up; Where have all the counsellors gone?/Open curfew, everyone.
Since its release, many artists have covered the song. The Kingston trio in 1961. Most notatbly, Peter, Paul, and Mary, who included the song on their debut album which stayed at the number one spot for five weeks in 1962. Even Bernie Sanders covered the song for his 1987 we shall overcome album.