Perry Friedman was a folksinger from western Canada who emigrated to the GDR in the late 1950s and went on to play an important role in the East German cultural scene by introducing the country to a number of folk music traditions – including their own.
I first came across Friedman’s name when I stumbled on his obituary in the German newspaper taz in the spring of 1995. The mention of a Canadian banjo player and young Communist who had settled in East Germany in the late 1950s struck me as too bizarre to be true. (To the tune of Sting’s “Englishman in New York”: I’m Canadian, a Communist Canadian, Playing banjo in East Berlin!)
Intrigued, I began pursuing the story with an eye to writing a piece for publication in Canada. After some digging, I was able to track down some of his family and associates and I ended up speaking with his sister-in-law, Sylvia Friedman, a colleague from the CBC in the 1970s, Lorne Tulk, and exchanged letters with a relative of his mother’s second husband. These filled in some of the blanks, but unfortunately, both Brigitte, his widow in Berlin, and Jack Winter, a collaborator and friend during his Canadian stay in the 1970s, refused to speak with me about Perry. In retrospect, I understand why. They were working on a book project of their own (something I was unaware of) and naturally did not wish to see this undercut by someone about whom they knew little and whose intentions were unclear. Given the sort of treatment received by many public figures from the former-GDR in the post-unification media, this hesitancy was understandable, however, without the cooperation of those closest to Perry, my project never took flight.
In 2004, Dietz Berlin published Wenn die Neugier nicht wär’ – Ein Kanadier in der DDR, a book containing Perry’s unfinished memoirs and reminiscences from a number of family, friends and colleagues. This work goes some way to telling Perry’s story, however, unfortunately, the memoir portion covers only up to his departure from the GDR in 1971, leaving much of his story to be told by others. For those who read German though, it’s worth tracking down.
What you’ll find below is information based on the research I conducted unless otherwise credited.
Youth in Canada (1935-1958): Have Banjo, Will Travel
Friedman was born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan in September 1935, the second son of Jewish-Canadian parents. The family had a general store in Big River, Saskatchewan, but moved many times throughout western Canada during Perry’s youth, often at the behest of his mother Claire who had great ambitions for her boys and felt that small town life was not for them.
By all accounts, family life was fairly chaotic with the family’s various businesses experiencing difficulties time and again forcing the family back to Big River on more than one occasion. Through their mother, a supporter of the Communist Party, Perry and his older brother Searle, were exposed to progressive politics and causes from a young age. During the family’s time in Winnipeg, Claire became involved with the United Jewish People’s Order, an independent, socialist-oriented, secular cultural and educational organization. As their biographies would show, these experiences would have a profound impact on the world view of both Perry and his brother Searle.
In 1951, Perry followed Searle and his wife Sylvia to Vancouver where the three lived together in a boarding house. During this time, Sylvia recalls how important the new, progressive folk music movement coming out of the United States was to them and their friends as a source of inspiration. For Searle this meant leading a Jewish folk choir in Vancouver, for Perry it manifested itself in him learning the banjo from a “How To . . .” book by Pete Seeger, one of the new folk movement’s most important figures. Sylvia told me that Perry received some instruction from Seeger himself when the musician was in Vancouver for a concert organized by the Friedman brothers and their friends.
Throughout the 1950s, Perry kept a number of odd jobs to make ends meet, but the encounter with Seeger had steeled his commitment to folk music. Perry worked to establish a repertoire and began collecting folk music himself. He toured Vancouver Island with Searle’s choir and performed solo for Communist Youth Groups in the region and in union towns such as Sudbury and Elliot Lake ON and Copper Cliff BC.
Relocation to England (1958-1959): Dirty Old Town
Finding it difficult to eke out a living as a performer in Canada, Perry relocated to London, England in 1958. Here he was active in the folk scene, both as a performer and recording artist. He played banjo on a 1959 EP by English folkie Steve Benbow and then recorded his own single for Topic Records that same year. Vive La Canadienne contained six songs from the Canadian folk tradition and this disc hit #56 in the charts upon its release in 1960.
Perry, however, was not in England to witness his modest chart success as in 1959, he made the decision to relocate to the GDR. This move followed an invitation he received from an East German representative following a performance at the Congress of the Communist Party of Great Britain (pg 53, ‘Wenn die Neugier . . .’). Having difficulties making ends meet in London, Perry decided to try his luck in the East.
GDR – The Early Years (1959-1971): Hootenanny on the Stalinallee
Friedman’s casual, North American approach to music making was difficult for East German authorities and audiences to place initially, but it resonated amongst young people starved for something new and authentic. In 1960, Friedman received permission to host a Hootenanny, a sing-along folk music party format that had become popular in North America, in the newly constructed Sport Hall in the Stalinallee (later Karl-Marx-Allee). This was well-received and featured not only Perry but a number of other artists as well including Gisela May (an acclaimed actress and singer) and Lin Jaldati (East Germany’s foremost interpreter of Yiddish song). The evening was a huge success and sparked an interest in both Friedman and the folk / protest songs he had in his repertoire. Soon Perry was able to tour with the Hootenanny format throughout the GDR and local versions of the event began to spring up throughout the country. Finding himself earning a living doing what he loved while contributing to the establishment of a socialist state, the decision to settle in East Berlin was an easy one.
During this period, Perry married a German girl, a West Berlin native who was studying to be a teacher at a college in East Berlin. Sylvia Friedman tells that on the evening that the Berlin Wall was erected (August 13, 1961), Perry and his wife were in the western part of the city visiting her family. When they learned that the border had been closed, they were faced with the decision of whether to stay put or return to the uncertainty of the GDR. They chose the latter and returned to the east where they started a family.
In 1962, Perry worked with Heinz Kahlau, a poet and writer and staunch supporter of the East German regime, on a book project entitled Hör zu, Mister Bilbo (Listen, Mr. Bilbo) which contained German translations of American workers’ songs. In 1963, the West German independent label pläne released a 7″ ep I’m On My Way – Amerikanische Negerliede, marking his first release in Germany. In 1964, Perry’s brother Searle and family move to East Berlin in order for Searle to pursue studies at the ‘Hans Eisler’ Academy of Music.
Were any further evidence needed for Perry’s strong support for the SED regime, it can be found in his appearance in the 1963 East German spy thriller For Eyes Only (Top Secret), a film made to provide justification for the building of the Berlin Wall. Ostensibly based on real events, the film is loosely based on the true story of the East German secret police’s infiltration of a U.S. Military Intelligence Division office in the 1950s thanks to which the American network of informants in the GDR was uncovered. The film is apparently an accomplished spy story and the box office numbers bear this out with more than 2.3 million East Germans paying to watch the film upon its release (http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/For_Eyes_Only). It’s hard to estimate how important Perry’s contribution was to the film’s success, but in his role as an American army officer, he does a fine pen twirl in the film’s trailer which can be seen below (00:27 – 00:30), before explaining NATO’s plans for an invasion of the East.
Until the mid-1960s, Perry was kept busy performing on radio and television, touring the GDR with the Hootenanny format and supporting the singing clubs which had sprouted up in many East German towns and cities. During this time his repertoire expanded to include songs from German folk and working class traditions. For many, this is seen as Perry’s most important contribution to East German culture for in doing this, he helped rehabilitate a part of German heritage which had abused and perverted by the Nazis between the years 1933-1945. The popularity of the Hootenanny shows encouraged the Amiga label to release three compilation albums featuring performances by Perry and other performers in 1966: Hootenanny mit Perry Friedman (above), Hootenanny mit Perry Friedman 2 and Songs, Chansons und Neue Lieder (see above). Indeed, the importance of the Perry’s contribution to East German youth culture during the first half of the 1960s was truly significant. A reflection of this is found in the fact that one of the Hootenanny compilation albums has made its way into the permanent exhibit of Germany’s official House of History museum.
But at the height of his success, a change in East German cultural policy would have significant consequences for Perry. Interested in keeping the influence of Western, and in particular American, culture at bay, in 1966 the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED – Sozialistische Einheitspartei) turned over control of the concerts and singing clubs to the Party’s youth wing, the Free German Youth (FDJ – Freie Deutsche Jugend). The foreign term ‘Hootenanny’ was forbidden replaced with the accurate, if less evocative, term ‘Singing Movement’ (dt. ‘Singbewegung‘) and Perry found himself slowly pushed to the side. However, having worked closely with the FDJ in the past and being a supporter of the Party, Perry initially didn’t see these changes as an existential threat (pg. 72, ‘Wenn die Neugier . . .‘). In fact, he took on a leadership role in the Berlin-based “Oktoberklub”, the singing club in the East German capital which found a home in the newly built Kino International in the Karl-Marx-Allee.
Soon, however, even this role on the margins became difficult for Perry to maintain. The “anti-Western” course that East German cultural policy had taken persisted. As an English-speaking Canadian, Perry found himself blacklisted and banned from performing on radio or TV. His gigs dried up too but, ironically, Perry’s Canadian passport now proved to be his salvation. Using this, he was able to pass through the now-closed inner-German border into West Berlin and West Germany where an audience existed for his “authentic”, progressive folk stylings and performance possibilities existed. In 1968 Perry was partially ‘rehabilitated’ by Kurt Goldstein, the head of GDR Radio, and given a new radio program, but these were difficult years for Perry.
Back to Canada (1971-1976): The Once Lost Returns (Part 1)
WIth things showing little sign of improvement, Perry decided to take the family back to Canada in 1971. Once there, he found work freelancing, primarily for CBC Radio and TVOntario. A friend from those CBC days, Lorne Tulk, recalls that Perry was extremely motivated and engaged: “He was the type of individual who wanted to provide a living for himself, a very entrepreneurial spirit.”
Shortly after his return to Canada, Perry met Jack Winter, a Canadian poet and dramatist, with whom he became close friends. Together the pair produced a number of radio documentaries and wrote and performed several stage productions and even a television variety show. Typically this work focused on social justice issues often incorporated contacts Perry had made in his days travelling across Canada to perform at union events and for their members. In addition to this work, another highlight of his time in Canada was Perry’s participation in “Employable You”, a concert to protest against high unemployment presented by the Ontario Federation of Labour which featured Don Harron and Dave Broadfoot (Royal Canadian Air Farce).
Gradually, however, the precariousness of life as a freelancer began to take its toll on Perry and his marriage. During this period, music fell by the wayside though as Perry turned his attentions to providing for his family. Lorne Tulk: “At his house in Etobicoke, his banjo was hanging on a wall like a picture or a painting, and I remember him pulling it down and playing a song for me, but that was it.”
By 1976, Perry had had enough of Canada and decided to return to East Berlin with his family.
GDR – The Later Years (1976-1990): The Once Lost Returns (Part 2)
It’s possible that Perry Friedman is the only person to emigrate to the GDR twice. I don’t know that for a fact, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else’s life following this trajectory. For Perry and so many others of his generation, the GDR embodied an alternative to a capitalist world and the promise of a more just, equitable social order. He felt that the limits the regime placed on individuals and their freedom were, while regrettable, necessary. His sister-in-law Sylvia described their world view in this way: “For many, the Wall was a symbol of pain and suffering, but for us it was one of hope and possibility.” And one should keep in mind that 1976 was really the high water mark for the GDR. The standard of living rose precipitously in the first half of that decade and the state seemed on the verge of establishing itself as a legitimate player on the world stage. With this backdrop, Perry’s decision to return to East Germany seems significantly less strange than it might at first glance.
Back in East Berlin, Perry was taken under the wing of the country’s official youth group, the Free German Youth (FDJ) and its leader Egon Krenz (who would later go on to succeed, if only briefly, Erich Honecker as the head of after his resignation in October 1989). A revival of the ‘Singing Movement’ coincided with Perry’s return and in the years that followed, Perry toured throughout in the GDR and the Eastern Bloc. In 1979, Perry received the GDR’s National Prize for Art and Music and in 1982 he released a self-titled new album for the GDR’s Amiga label (see below).
In addition to his work in the East, Perry was also active in West Germany. He appeared at many union events, particularly those of the IG Metall. He was also contributed to many of the huge peace protests/concerts which punctuated life in the Federal Republic in the 1980s.
While the return to East Germany brought Perry much professional happiness, his relationship with his wife fell apart. Several years after the divorce, his wife and boys left East Berlin for the Western part of the city where she was able to rejoin her family. Perry was understandably saddened by this, but he found a new partner with whom he would remain until his passing years later.
In 1988, while on tour and already suffering from kidney problems and diabetes, Perry suffered a heart attack that forced him off the road. He was just getting back to work when the tumultuous events of the fall of 1989 brought down the East German state in which Perry had invested so much hope. A letter to Jack Winter written in December 1989 gives a sense of his despair at the turn of events: “We find ourselves confronted by a very painful period of our lives. . . . I fear that we are in the process of throwing away an entire chapter of our history, one named ‘Socialism’. . . . The tragedy here is that the people had a onetime chance to develop a new society and they threw it away.” (pg. 109, ‘Wenn die Neugier . . .’)
The Last Act (1990-1995)
Like many of his contemporaries, the early years after German unification brought many changes to Perry’s life. He did some freelance work as a radio journalist once again, but it took him several years to find his feet artistically particularly now that the state supports which had made much of his work possible were gone. He did regroup, however, and Perry’s last musical projects brought him back to his roots. A 1992 concert featured a program of American folk and classical music while his final performance in 1994 was made up from his repertoire of Yiddish and German songs.
After a lengthy struggle with illness, Perry died at the age of 59 in Berlin on March 16, 1995.