Memories of Pete Seeger in East Berlin

BERLIN – For someone lucky enough to get to know Pete a little, in East Berlin of all places, and who admired him all my life, the words of Ralph Nader, Bruce Springsteen and many others, also the courageous words of Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara, moved me to many recollections – and also to some hard thinking.

Pete wrote that after the 1950’s he was no longer a Communist with a large C, but still one with a small c. As for me, a “red diaper baby” in left-leaning New York, I was already in the “small c” category by the 7th grade. About 1940, during my short stay at the exclusive Dalton School, Pete, hardly known, came to sing to us, invited by his aunt, our history teacher. In a flash he had the mostly wealthy kids joyously singing left-wing CIO songs, like audiences everywhere, with me maybe the loudest.

In 1945, every Saturday night, we sang his songs, with those of Woody, Leadbelly, Paul Robeson and Ernst Busch, at the Folksay square dance and song sessions in the Furriers’ Hall – led by Irwin Silber and others from Wochica (Workers Childrens Camp).

Before long I changed that small letter to a capital C and became the kind of Communist Sunkara describes with such understanding, getting petitions signed, selling Daily Workers, joining picket lines and demonstrating against fascism in Spain. As a student I helped organize a concert for Pete at Harvard, where a happy audience may have doubted his (and my) politics but loved to sing with him. And of course I sang his songs of the Henry Wallace campaign.

After college, as one of those who “went into industry,” I took a weekend off my factory job and heard Pete and then Paul Robeson sing at Peekskill – before all the windows on our bus got smashed by police-organized rock throwers.

It was then the McCarthy crowd took over. The result for me, after getting drafted and unsuccessfully concealing my past, was to land, as a fully panic-stricken deserter, in (again, of all places) East Germany, the GDR.

But who can forget such a past?  After vain efforts to encourage square dancing I did have a bi-weekly radio series called “Pete Seeger sings,” introducing a growing, enthusiastic East German audience (and not a few West Germans) to his songs and those of the other singers, old and then new – Baez, Dylan, Paxton, Ochs, P,P and M.

When Pete, Toshi and Tinya finally visited in 1967 (typically both West and East Berlin) I landed the job of East Berlin interpreter. Pete and Toshi, as was their wont, kept ears and eyes open, looking for what was negative and – just possibly – what might even be positive. He rejected a reception in the VIP lounge, was not happy about a failed TV session, and waited anxiously for his solo concert in the biggest theater in town. How would these East Germans react?

It was sold out – to the last seat! One of his first songs was “Schtille di Nacht” – written by a Jewish victim of the Nazis in Poland. There was complete, deeply moved silence. Then “Moorsoldaten,”  “Peat Bog Soldiers,” the rebellious song of leftwing prisoners of the Nazis at the beginning of Hitler’s rule. The entire auditorium joined in, to the last seat in the balcony! Everyone knew that song!  He sang ” Lisa Kalvelage,” the words of the German woman who learned a lesson from the inaction of her parents against the Nazis and therefore took a stand against napalm shipments to Vietnam. The song was new, but not the sentiment; this crowd was totally opposed to Nazi fascism and fully sympathetic, sometimes very actively, to the fight of people in Vietnam, or earlier in Algeria (and later in Chile, Nicaragua, South Africa and Namibia). I know that Pete was moved – and from his words and later correspondence – I know he was aware that a country like the GDR, with all its blunders (and worse) was not one monolithic, brutal state but rather a complex mixture. Though strongly anti-fascist and pushing solidarity with many freedom struggles, it could never reach everybody with such not always simple messages. But it tried. Many of its dark sides were a result of fear in the face of immense hostile pressure from without, aimed from the start at extinguishing such an experiment. In the end, due to forces from within and without and very varied in their motives, this was successful. Stasi and the Wall are gone but now we again have Krupp, Siemens, BASF and the Deutsche Bank, all busy expanding worldwide. And now the NSA to boot! But I’m afraid I was never able to chew this over with Pete.

Of course, in East Berlin in 1967 (and again in 1986) Pete also sang jollier songs, and got a somewhat broader picture, singing to a small, young bunch from the recently-formed Hootenanny Club, whose members knew all those still new, wonderful songs like “Guantanamera”, “Wimoweh” and of course “We Shall Overcome.” They formed the base of a long, interesting – if complicated – renaissance of guitar-playing, singing young people. Then too, I accompanied the Seegers to the Berliner Ensemble, the “Bertolt Brecht theater”, to see a play by Sean O’Casey (unfortunately in German), one of a variety of theater and opera highlights then in East Berlin. And he met the legendary singer-actor Ernst Busch.

I should mention one little, very typical incident: At supper, before his big concert, Pete found a finely-folded napkin on his plate, decorating a little note, which I translated: “Dear Mr. Seeger, I love your music. Can I get a ticket to your concert this evening?” – signed by “an apprentice waiter.” The concert manager, also at the table, said, “Impossible! We have no more tickets, not even for big shots!”

But Pete looked at Toshi, she nodded, and he said, “He’s coming to the concert – even if he has to carry my banjo in at the stage entrance!” Which is exactly what happened.

Photo: Pete Seeger (left). Richard Drew/AP


Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled his U.S. Army post in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive, and became a freelance journalist and author. His latest book,  A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 – 1990, the tremendous improvements for the people under socialism, the reasons for the fall of socialism, and the importance of today's struggles.