HomePublicationsThe Tracker MagazineVol 2, No. 1, Winter 1983

The Tracker Magazine - Vol 2 No. 1, Winter 1983

He is Singing For Freedom
Naomi Kaplan

In Erwinna, Pennsylvania, he's known is the taxidermist. In songwriting circles, he's known as the musician who wrote "Willows".

In Romania, where he fights for human rights he says don't exist there, he is known as the Man with Two Rings. And is marked for death.

John W. Crossley's life is a patchwork of interests and occupations. He owns the Tohickon Creek Taxidermy and a glass eye works, writes songs about religious persecution, performs locally and in Europe and has spearheaded an organization called East Watch International to monitor repression in the Soviet Union.

The band he plays with is called the Burghers of Calais, a group of five young musicians who, like himself, want their music to be "a mouthpiece for what is really going on in the world".

And what is really going on, according to Crossley, is repression, persecution and torture throughout most of Eastern Europe, where the Soviet Union keeps its people in line through "Orwellian fear".

"People," said Crossley, "are willfully blind. They overlook the facts. It is this superficial Western naivete that keeps these totalitarian regimes torturing people."

Crossley and his Burghers of Calais have played their message songs to area college and coffeehouse crowds and to students throughout Eastern Europe. Major record companies have indicated interest in them, and their chances for success may be even greater now that one of their songs has received recognition.

"Willows" recently placed fourth in the West Coast's American International Songwriter's Festival, considered the largest songwriting contest in the country. Last August it placed first in the Sheet Music magazine contest.

But winning songwriting contests, however gratifying, is not what makes the 29-year-old Doylestown native tick.

"I don't want to be billed as the singing taxidermist," said Crossley. "It is such a small part of what I do, I don't even think about it."

It was the darkest night in Kalingrad,
when the soldiers came to play.
To beat on the soul of the better ones,
and to bum what they had to say.

(from "Kalingrad" by John Crossley)

Crossley's deep, brown eyes were calm like his voice as he described a conversion to Christianity 10 years ago that, for him, was like "grabbing a hold of a rocket and taking off with it". The links in his life, he said, that led him to human rights activism, were "the workings of God".

In 1970, Crossley was studying photography at Bucks County Community College when he became interested in taxidermy as a "way of preserving things that are very beautiful". He apprenticed himself to a Philadelphia taxidermist while continuing his studies.

"At the same time," said Crossley, "I experienced a conversion to Christianity". He soon met a Danish professor who had given up teaching to aid oppressed people. It was through him that Crossley learned about the suffering of Christians and Jews throughout most of Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe.

He traveled through Eastern Europe on a double mission: to meet with Christians and to find, for his taxidermist boss, someone who could teach him to make glass eyes by the old European method. He found the Christians, but it would be several more trips before he would learn the glass eye technique he now uses in his manufacturing firm in Erwinna.

But the trip convinced Crossley, he said, that his "life would be geared toward helping persecuted people".

The Burghers of Calais was formed in 1974. Crossley and four of his friends who also had experienced a Christian conversion, chose the odd name for their band from a group of French town fathers who, in the 14th century, offered themselves as sacrifice to save the Calais people who were threatened by the invading British.

"We're singing about human rights and thought it was a great name for a human rights band," said Crossley.

The band's purpose, said Crossley, "was never commercial". All proceeds from its concerts go to human rights groups. The band plays only original music - and much of that are songs about freedom.

"Christians are tremendously persecuted in Eastern Europe", he said. "People in the West just have no idea. Our purpose in our music is to let people know what's really going on."

"People like our music. I think that shows that music doesn't have to be trite to be popular."

The band has played in Hungary, Germany, in local clubs, and was featured last Saturday on Channel 6’s "Prime Time" television show.

Crossley said that once he began writing songs about human rights, he became "extremely prolific. I had so much to write about. About families of people put into psychiatric hospitals and given 'injections', about young people thrown out of school and mocked for their (Christian) beliefs, about the Orwellian fear that two-thirds of the world's population lives under".

But does anyone know the victory
as the pages lit the sky
In the light of the great obscenity
We could read the reason why!

(from "Kalingrad")

"We get a lot of company," explained Crossley, asked about the huge parking lot that surrounds the converted barn up the hill from his Erwinna glass works, where he lives with several friends.

He has tapped and expanded a network of people involved with human rights in the Soviet Union, and some of his friends were still in Romania as Crossley discussed their activities. For that reason, he asked that their names not be printed.

"I'm a persona non grata there," he said. "They (the Romanian secret police) have told me that if I ever return, I'm a marked man." They call him, he said, the "man with two rings", referring to the two silver and turquoise rings Crossley wears. And they are looking for him.

Crossley's involvement in Romania, where he had traveled many times during his dozen or so trips to Eastern Europe, struck a deep well in 1979, when me met the Romanian Orthodox priest Father Gheorghe Calciu. The priest had been imprisoned at 18, while a seminary student, and spent 16 years in Romanian prison cells. Tortured so severely that he attempted suicide, the priest was freed when the current prime minister took over and general amnesty was declared, Crossley said.

But the priest's lectures to students - who began showing up in large numbers - spurred warnings by the Romanian secret police, Crossley said. Then in 1979, the priest drafted a human rights document for the Free Trade Union, a workers'organization.

The document, Crossley said, was not to demand new rights, but to "point out to the government that it is violating its own constitution".

Crossley met the priest in Bucharest.

"He asked me to take the trade document," said Crossley, "and give it to Radio Free Europe. He knew that he would be arrested."

Crossley took the document to Radio Free Europe official Noel Bernard. Bernard appeared bored at first, Crossley said, as he translated the Romanian papers. Suddenly he looked up at Crossley. "Do you know what you have here?" he asked him.

The reports were broadcast into Romania. The Trade Union members were arrested and tortured, Crossley said. Finally, they gave Crossley's name as the man who delivered them to the radio station.

The priest was sentenced to 10 years in prison, where, Crossley said, he has wasted away to 88 pounds and is dying. "My first priority," said Crossley, "is getting him out of prison."

And do you remember how they looked
with chains upon their hands?
How I kissed their lips with a bitterness
and I knew they'd understand,
that joy was more than anything
this world could ever bring?
Through the darkest halls and the prison walls,
I could hear my children sing.

(from "Kalingrad")

Crossley wrote to George Meany about the documents, who in turn sent a letter to former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance., The letter was published in the AFLCIO's international news1etter.

Crossley has been called to testify before Congressional groups on human rights violations in Eastern Europe. His organization, East Watch International, is collecting documents from people there to support his testimony.

East Watch hopes to influence trade agreements with Romania and other Soviet bloc countries, Crossley said. "The United States just stands by and does nothing," he said. "These countries are getting our tax dollars to support repressive regimes. Something has to be done and we want to be the group to do it."

Because he is a Christian, Crossley said his main focus has been rights for Christians. But he also is concerned with the oppression by the Soviets of Jews, and is a strong supporter of Israel. In fact, he wrote a song for Menachim Begin, whom he respects deeply. The song was played for Begin, and Crossley received a letter of thanks from the Israeli Prime Minister.

"People judge Begin," said Crossley, "but they don't know the facts."

The song he wrote for Begin, called "I search for a City", tells of Begin's experience during World War II when, working for the Allies, he was trying to get 2,000 Jews out of Warsaw. But the British turned him away at the Romanian border. The Nazis came in and killed all 2,000 by stuffing them in boxcars to suffocate. Only Begin managed to escape.

"That is how the Allies repaid him," said Crossley. "Israel can rely only on itself and Begin knows it. It's not a popular opinion, but they know who their friends are."

Crossley continues to write songs. So far he has written more than 100, from love and folk ballads to songs of bitter lament for lost freedoms, such as "Kalingrad", quoted here. It is his favorite song, written as an ode to the Russian dissident poet Alexander Galaich.

The song, said Crossley, is about an old Jewish man who lives alone in a small apartment in Katingrad, Russia, formerly part of Germany, where he tries to forget the loss of his wife and children to the Nazis. He longs to go to Israel, but is forbidden by the government.

The refrain, "Tum Balalaika" recalls the Yiddish folk song that the concentration camp orchestra often played when prisoners were being led away to their deaths.

Crossley sings it in a strong, sweet voice, one that has been likened to Gordon Lightfoot's. He strummed the guitar gently and his eyes seemed miles from teh Bucks County hills as he sang.

On the tumbled down side of Kalingrad,
at the top of the dirty stairs
you can find me there most any night
if you really seem to care.
And when the gaulouise are passed around
like the gold of a thousand kings,
we can share a cup of emptiness
Until I hear my children sing, crying
Ahh - Tum Balaliaka
Ahh - Tum Balaliaka
Ahh - Tum Balaliaka

[Reprinted from The Express Entertainment Guide, February 20, 1981]

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