Breaking the Cycle of History: Where Have all the Flowers Gone?

The folk song, Where Have all the Flowers Gone? was written by Pete Seeger and made popular by the Kingston Trio in the 1960s. At the time it was a kind of protest song about war. In an interview Seeger had said that he got the idea to write the song from a Russian novel called And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov. In the story a group of Cossacks in Czarist Russia ride out of their village singing, "Where are the flowers? The girls have plucked them. Where are the girls? They've all taken husbands. Where are the men? They're all in the army. Gallop, gallop, gallop, wheeeee!"

Pete Seeger added a few verses and made the song into a cycle. Although Seeger's song was originally made popular in the time of upheaval that surrounded the protests in the United States about the Viet Nam War, the lyrics take on a wider meaning. The song is really about the cycle of history and how impossible it is to break.

The first stanza goes:

Where have all the flowers gone? Long time passing...
Where have all the flowers gone? Long time ago...
Where have all the flowers gone? Maidens picked them every one!
When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?

Then the song asks a series of questions in a similar vein, one proceeding from the other.

Where have all the maidens gone?...Taken by young men.
Where have all the young men gone?...Turned to soldiers.
Where have all the soldiers gone?...Gone to graveyards.
Where have all the graveyards gone?...Turned to Flowers.
Where have all the flowers gone?...and so the cycle repeats.

Much has been written about cycles in history. A very popular book in the 1990s was The Fourth Turning in which distinct generational phases and cycles could be discerned in American History. While the authors of The Fourth Turning (William Strauss and Neil Howe) took a serious, academic approach, Pete Seeger's song is more philosophic. It takes on a wistful tone. It is a vague commentary on human nature. It is happy and sad at the same time. There is joy in picking flowers, marrying, turning to soldiers. In some ways there is even a melancholic satisfaction in the death of the soldiers. And the graveyards turning to flowers disguise for the next generation what is to come.

Is there a cycle of history? Most historians would say that there is, which would account for such apocryphal sayings as, "Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it." The narrator of the song stands above it all, observing the cycle recurring over and over. Is there a superior tone? Yes and no. The singer can observe it all, but is powerless to stop it. He asks the question, "When will they ever learn?" This is a cry of the heart, but no action is taken. Perhaps Seeger believed that the song itself would help stop war. That to see and understand history might allow the cycle to be broken. This would certainly be in line with our apocryphal saying quoted above.

Interestingly, there is a book by the historian, Francis Fukuyama, called The End of History and the Last Man which hypothesizes that human society has evolved beyond war. Fukuyama believed that our understanding of social systems allows us to solve problems without violence on a national scale.

In Where Have all the Flowers Gone? Pete Seeger produced a haunting melody and a perceptive comment on history. The narrator of the song asks the question, "When will we ever learn?" Yet, it is obvious that simply seeing the cycle is not enough to end it. Arguments rage in political circles about the solution. Is the answer unilaterally laying down arms? or as Curtis LeMay advocated, maintaining "peace through strength"?

Pax Romana, Pax Britanica, Pax Americana.


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