Pete Seeger (1919-2014) lamented about the futility of war, but he also imparted hope, says Ratnottama Sengupta, as she recalls her memorable meeting with folk legend Seeger, in a tete-a-tete with friends
Last week, as people crowded the Kiev railway station to flee the Ukrainian capital, visuals started trending of the giant staircase inside the pedestrian bridge over the Yauza River to the Kiev Railway Station, the deepest station in the world. It reminded Sonia, my batchmate from Elphinstone College, of the hours she’d spent on the fabulous stairs that take you all the way down with her father who had an attack of trachycardia as they arrived in Kiev by a train from Moscow. “With great difficulty we made our way to the waiting hall from which you have to descend by this enormous staircase. I remember all the Ukrainians helped us, just as all the Russians would help us. And father kept taking Calmposes until I supported him down the stairs into a cab that took us from the station to the hotel.”
Only after that Sonia had called for an ambulance. But why not do that two hours ago? “Because father did not want me to engage with the local health authorities as we didn’t know whether they would have the drugs he used and had forgotten in India,” she explained. “And as soon as I made that call, within five minutes the ambulance was there – with that drug.” Only after that Sonia found out that Kiev has the fastest ambulance service in the world – “and the finest,” she added – “because of what they faced in WWII…”
All through those few hours Sonia felt so supported by the local people. “I didn’t have to explain anything to the cab driver or the hotel staff – we were whisked into our room and then I went back to check in!” So today Sonia wonders how people in the bunkers are coping with small necessities such as brushing their teeth. Even as she sends Kiev her love and prayers, she feels that “peace keeping forces have to go in rather than arming Ukraine.”
“But who will stand in the line of fire?” quips Liz George, another college mate. “So, may God help the people who are facing such terrible times!” she echoes Sonia. “May god protect everyone in Kiev,” Bhamini Subramanian’s heart goes out to the innocent civilians who lost their lives and the countless families displaced, fleeing and seeking shelter to save their lives…
Watching images of the bizarre war at Kiev opens a floodgate of memories amongst us. “Yet, put aside politics and people anywhere in the world are ready to go out of their way to help people in dire situations,” Sonia sums up. And, like her, I have seen from my travels around the world that people are the same everywhere – they just want the humdrum of a normal, peaceful day to day life. But circumstances – “and policies,” Sonia adds deny a whole lot of them that. “Wish we could find a less harmful way to settle disputes,” we sigh.
The mention of the staircase made me think of the Potemkin Steps – the giant stairway in Odessa, another landmark habitation in Ukraine. Originally known as the Boulevard Steps, or the Giant Steps, these are considered the formal entrance into the city from the sea. Odessa, perched on a high steppe plateau, needed direct access to the harbour below which was, in days of yore, connected only by winding path and crude wooden stairs. A hundred years eroded ‘the monstrous stairs’ built with greenish grey sandstone shipped from Italy – and so in 1933, the sandstone was replaced by granite and the landings by asphalt. And in 1955, the Soviet government renamed it as the Potemkin Stairs to honour the 50th anniversary of the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin. After Ukraine gained independence it restored – as it did with many other streets and landmarks — the previous name of Primorsky Stairs.
But why did I recall this bit of history? Because of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin . “That silent 1925 film is a handbook for every editor!” – Hrishikesh Mukherjee had said to me as he must have to hundreds of other students of cinema in India. And just seven years ago, in 2015, the European Film Academy put a commemorative plate on the stairs to indicate that the Potemkin staircase is a memorable place for European cinema.
Watching the news unfolding tirelessly on the idiot box my friend Shireen Elavia is reminded of the Hindi film Airlift (2016), which had dealt with the evacuation of the Indian expatriates stranded in that state bordering Iraq and Saudi Arabia, at the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1990, when the soldiers of Saddam Hussain’s Iraq had walked into Kuwait and run over it… “In a massive rescue operation in which our friend Raji had also participated, Air India under its regional director Mascarenhas had airlifted 170000 people…” Sonia pitched in. “I was at that time posted in Moscow.”
“It is not a question of the negativity of war,” again Sonia recounted what a dear friend of hers – Polish by birth and Indian by marriage – has said. “Ukraine suffers because of its geopolitical position.” History repeatedly shows that “Countries suffer either because they have a certain geopolitical position or because they sit on earth filled with riches.” How very tragic! For, if they now forget they are all still in East Europe, we all forget that we are inmates of the same home – this planet.
A profound truth that we often overlook – or render to oblivion. A truth that Pete Seeger (1919-2014) had driven home to me in Delhi sometime in 1996. “The point is not to ask for yourself alone — one has to ask for everybody: Either we all are going to make it over the rainbow or nobody is going to make it. And that is how suddenly a song about the greens becomes a song that takes a step forward. This is what I call the folk process.”
The human drama unfolding between Russia and Ukraine, the two countries that have been described by a cartoonist as ‘divorced spouses,’ led yet another of my university friends, Usha Kelkar Srivastava, to re-play Where have all the flowers gone (1955), that old Pete Seeger favourite “which turns out to be a Ukrainian folk song”. The poignant melody was a favourite of ours when we went to university – much like Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind (1962) and John Lenon’s Imagine (1964) – and for decades after he’d penned it, regardless of which country he was in, the guru of country singing would sing the peace songs and the audience would sing with him. “They would sing the songs in schools and in summer camps. Some of us sang in churches and unions, some sang in coffee houses and people would gather around us and sing with us old songs and new…” Pete had recounted in the course of the four days I was really fortunate to have spent in his company. The legend who sang in defence of humanity, had come to Delhi at the invitation of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) — and when he returned to America, he gifted me a set of CDs signed to me which are among my prized possessions.
“Just as a river takes the shape of the land it flows through, a song can echo the raw emotions of a land and people,” said Usha culling from her background in Music History. “Rarely has any song touched the world like the simple Where have all the flowers gone…” It has the cyclic structure of another Hebrew folk song about violence that I’d heard in an Amos Gitai film. Pete, while travelling in air, had come across a few lines in Sholokov’s And Quiet Flows the Don: “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.”
The lines from a Caucasian folk song “are sung in the Ukrainian countryside as Tovchu tovchu mak and Koloda Duda,” Usha added. Pete had adapted these words, adding the refrain of ‘Long time passing and Long time ago’ almost as a chorus. At some point in time he combined it with the tune of a traditional Irish lumberjack song – “only, I slowed down the energetic and full of vigour rendition,” and thus was born the haunting song. The three verses were later expanded by other country singers who added two more verses that underscore the tragedy thus: ‘Where have all the soldiers gone? They’re in the graves, everyone of them…and Now the flowers have come back, on the graves…’
“My only complaint is that this song is not specific enough,” Pete once said at a live concert in Sweden. “It’s too easy just to say, ‘When will we ever learn? Oh when will we ever learn?’ without saying what you want people to learn.” Yet, how potent this critique of war is can be gauged by the number of recordings, and the spread of languages in which it has been rewritten.
The Kingston Trio first recorded it in 1961 not knowing it to be authored by Pete Seeger. In 1962 Marlene Dietrich performed it in English, French and German at a UNICEF concert – “and she sings it even better,” Seeger had said. On a tour of Israel, she rendered it in German, breaking the taboo of using that language publicly in that country. The song has versions in Dutch, Polish, Czech, Croatian, Hungarian, Irish. It has been adapted to the piano, it exists in an instrumental version, and also as a parody! In 1964, Columbia Records released it in the Hall of Fame series and in 2002 Seeger was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in the Folk category. In 2010 New Statesman listed it among the Top 20 Political Songs worldwide.
I had the opportunity to hear the other American icon, Joan Baez, sing the contemporary folk song with operatic flourishes, in Manchester sometime in 1977. The activist songwriter had included the German version in her 1965 album, Farewell, Angelina. The very next year the much-loved voice of Harry Belafonte had recorded it in a Benefit concert in Stockholm. A Russian version was recorded in 1998 by Oleg Nesterov, who founded the Moscow based rock band Megapolis just before Perestroika. In the present century Olivia Newton-John recorded it in her 2004 album Indigo: Women of Song while Dolly Parton recorded it in 2005 for her album Those Were the Days. On August 9, 2009, it was sung at the funeral of Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier of WW1.
In Kolkata, where I now live, Anjan Dutt had covered “the old but always relevant song” in Rawng (Colour) Pencil, going on to remind us at the outset of the Gulf War, “Ekii chinta Bangla tey korechhe Lalon, Notun korey eki gaan geyechhe Lenon, Shei eki katha aaj gaichhe Suman, gaichhi aami shei eki gaan (The same thought had inspired the Baul Lalon Fakir; the American John Lenon, and Kolkata’s own Suman and me, to ask — When will they ever learn?)” As for Kabir Suman, who penned the Bengali version, Kothay gelo tara: he had himself rendered it on stage with Pete during that India tour of 1996.
Back then Pete was “very happy that the Berlin Wall came down so peacefully”. I distinctly recall asking the self-effacing giant if the wide reach of Where have all the flowers gone indicates that the world is finally learning about not going to war. The Times of India had carried his answer: “I don’t know whether songs really change things. All I do know is that throughout history, leaders have been particular about which songs they want sung!” And then the balladeer sang of a youth who was asked the same question, to say, ‘I don’t know if I can change the world… But I will make sure the world doesn’t change me…’
“That was a good song,” Pete had concluded. “When people around the world say that — that’s when the world will be changed.”
Ratnottama Sengupta thanks the people mentioned here: Both Sonia Singh and Raji Sekhar are her batchmates from Elphinstone College, Bombay (now Mumbai). They worked in Air India. Usha Srivastava and Elizabeth George (then Vergese) were singers in Pranjyoti Choir. Usha Kelkar Srivastava, trained in Western classical music, later went on to give lessons in Music History at the American Embassy School, New Delhi. Bhamini Subramaniam is a designer while Shireen Elavia. Havewala, is a retired banker.
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and writes books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award.
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