It was some time in 1967 that we crossed the Iron Curtain as a family to visit members of our family whom World War II had left behind the Wall. This was one of the most memorable trips we’ve ever taken—and it so happened that we “encountered” Pete Seeger there for the first time, at least consciously. Seeger was 48 that year and had already achieved worldwide fame; without doubt we’d heard many of his songs already, but not quite consciously.
During that trip I took part of a morning to visit a bookstore in the town of Weissenfels (around 40,000). The store, to my amazement, featured literally scores of American writers of a left-leaning persuasion, all in translation—so much so that I needed the clerk’s help to find a book actually written by an honest-to-God East Germany author. Having found that, I chanced across a large American album. It was Pete Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome,” first published in 1966. I bought it right then and there.
What we did not know, when visiting there, was that Pete Seeger had performed in East Berlin early in January of 1967—which, perhaps, explains why his record would have been selling in Weissenfels. At any rate, that album became our introduction to this quite phenomenal figure in popular culture and, in our hearts, a close and valued friend. Later on, we once actually heard him perform in an outdoor venue somewhere in the Washington, DC area—and by that time our girls were lustily singing right along with him, having learned all the word from that East German album.
Who killed Norma Jean?
I, said the City, as a civic duty,
I killed Norma Jean.
Who saw her die?
I, said the Night, and a bedroom light,
We saw her die.
[Norman Rostan, “Who Killed Norma Jean”]
Now Pete Seeger passes too—and time will silt him over, as it has silted over his album, which is around here somewhere, fossilizing slowly without a machine any longer available to play it. He died last Monday—and is probably tuning up his banjo somewhere beyond the Borderzone.