In autumn 1981 I received an invitation to take part in the Festival des Politischen Liedes (Festival of Political Song) in the German Democratic Republic ("East Germany") the following February.
I emerged from Friedrichsstrasse railway station after an all-night crossing by boat and train, bleary-eyed and shivering in the freezing air, to be greeted by a wee guy who looked a bit like a bookie's runner, with the classic Scots "bunnet" jammed on his head. He shoved his hand out and said, in a strong Glasgow accent, "Hullo, I'm Jack Mitchell - welcome to the GDR". This was my first meeting with the man who was to become my close friend and mentor.
It was only later that I realised that he was the author of the article in Chapbook I'd read in 1966 which analysed Hamish Henderson's "51st Highland Division's Farewell to Sicily" and which had set me off on a lifelong journey of discovery into that song.
Jack, or to give him his correct title, Dr John Mitchell, was Professor of English Literature at Humboldt University and had been one of the prime movers in the emergence of the folksong movement in the GDR. He had a wicked sense of humour and highly infectious enthusiasm. He was also a savage critic of sloppiness and vagueness in lyrics and was the greatest teacher I ever had. It was from Jack I learned to ask myself the three questions I apply to everything I do artistically - "What do I want to say? Who do I want to say it to? Why do I want to say it to them?" - and that being able to answer 2 of those 3 isn't good enough.
Jack's parents were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain and he had decided that the society that the people of the GDR were trying to build was something he wanted to be part of. He lived and worked there from the 50s through to the annexation by West Germany then went to live in Galway until his death.
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©Dick Gaughan February 2001. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in whole or in part in any form, material or electronic, without the written permission of the author.
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