Thursday, April 12, 2012

Musical Memories—with Twist

Sometime a chance stimulus leads to a string of associations—and they produce new, and amusing, insights. Here is such a case. I am quoting here from a letter I received this morning from my old friend Philip Cavanaugh:
A couple of days ago I heard the recording “Goodnight Irene” on an internet music site. I remembered this silly song from my high school days and remembered that it had been composed and sung by Peter Seeger, my favorite American Communist. 
I met Seeger twice, once in 1965 when I was working at the New Windsor Cantonment in Newburgh, NY. You once visited there in our 1725 house; we drank a lot of Ballantine Ale that night. The museum hosted a group of Czech students and invited Pete Seeger to come over from Poughkeepsie to their campsite and sing. Seeger is a delightful and sharp guy. That was the first time I had heard the song “Die Moorsoldaten,” and he sang some of the songs of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of Spanish Civil War-fame. I met him again a couple of years later aboard his reconstructed 19th century Hudson river schooner “The Clearwater”; he was then active in creating awareness of the terribly polluted Hudson river.

Anyway, after hearing his song I looked him up on Wikipedia, knowing he was in his 90’s and wanted to see if he is still around. He is, but while reading about his life I encountered the name “Hanns Eisler”; this jumped out at me, as this name appears on the dust jacket of a recording of the DDR national anthem I had bought in East Berlin in 1957. Reading further I found Eisler was indeed a Seeger friend. Eisler, Brecht, Kurt Weil were émigrés in the 1930’s who came to the US to get away from the Nazis. Eisler and Brecht ended up in Hollywood and Eisler composed music for American films during the war; in fact, he was nominated for an Oscar for his film score for “None but the Lonely Heart” starring Cary Grant. He had a bad time in the late 40’s and 50’s with the House Un-American Activities Committee and left the country, eventually ending up in East Berlin. He composed “Auferstanden aus Ruinen” [“Risen from the Ruins”] and it became the official East German anthem. He remained a staunch communist and defended not only the regime against the demonstrators of the 17th of June but also defended the construction of the Berlin Wall. So a one time American Oscar-nominated film music composer wrote the DDR’s Nationalhymne? Is that cool or what?
                      [Philip Marshall Cavanaugh, private communication]

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