|He is Singing For Freedom
In Erwinna, Pennsylvania, he's known is the
taxidermist. In songwriting circles, he's known as the musician who wrote
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
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
"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
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'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
"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
as the pages lit the sky
In the light of the great obscenity
We could read the reason why!
"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
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
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.
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
"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
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]