In 1957, Peggy Seeger took the stage in Moscow to perform for a packed house of the cream of the Soviet intelligentsia.
"Don't you want to hear all the children singing," she sang, strumming her banjo, "big ol' bells a-ringing, come and go with me to that land."
The crowd responded with stony silence. Worried that the language barrier might be to blame, Seeger tried nursery songs, trying to teach the literati the rhyming choruses so they could sing along. Still nothing. Before the intelligentsia, Seeger was a dud, but she didn't care. It was the youth of Moscow she had come to perform for, and in the streets of the city, they were going wild.
Seeger was one of 160 Americans invited to Russia for the 1957 World Festival of Youth and Students. It was the first time in the event's history that the festival was held in Russia, which will host it again this October, 60 years later. In 1957, four years after Stalin's death, the first cracks were appearing in the Iron Curtain, and these cultural emissaries were among the first Americans to slip inside. Fearful that they might be taken in by Communist propaganda, the State Department had discouraged them from making the trip, but they went anyway — coming without preparation, diplomatic training, or any support from their government. The result was an unrehearsed and spontaneous fortnight of cultural exchange — something that would never happen again for the duration of the Cold War.
Seeger was 22 when she arrived in Moscow, five-string banjo in hand, after a three-day train ride through Europe. She came from a musical family. Her half-brother, Pete was well known in American folk music and had performed for Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House. Two years before, at the height of the McCarthy era, he had been subpoenaed to appear before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Peggy Seeger was not particularly political when she arrived in Moscow. She had been drawn by the spirit of adventure, curiosity, and romance.
"I was flighty at that time," Seeger says, "I was just going wherever and just for fun. I got myself into scrapes because I said yes; because I wanted to do everything."
On arrival, she was taken to the American dormitory, where all nationalities were billeted separately, like an Olympic village.
"I didn't know what to expect," she recalls. "I'd been to Germany, France, Spain, Italy… This was the first trip I'd taken further east. I had political instincts, but I had no political talk."
The American delegation may have been small, but the Youth Festival was not. More than 30,000 international students from 131 countries descended on the streets of Moscow, invited and in some cases subsidized by the festival organizers, the World Federation of Democratic Youth, an NGO composed mostly of representatives from socialist groups. Posters adorned with five flower petals to represent the five inhabited continents and the festival motto — "Peace and Friendship" — were plastered on every wall. A program of balls, exhibitions, lectures, parades, sports games, and concerts ran all day and through the nights for two weeks.
"It wasn't like Woodstock. It wasn't like Newport; it wasn't like Glastonbury; it wasn't like any music festival," Seeger says. "I thought it was absolutely stunning. I was bowled over by it."
Though the group was there unofficially, they still participated in all the events. For the parade to the opening ceremony, other countries had arranged massive floats, puppetry displays, dancing. The Americans drove through the crowd on an open truck, holding up a homemade makeshift banner. Seeger passed badges, autographs, and handshakes back and forth as the truck drove slowly through the surging crowd of Soviet youth delegates and the five million Moscow residents.
For the opening ceremonies, each country had rehearsed performances to showcase their national culture. The American delegation, again, had no program to share. But Seeger had her banjo. She was barefoot when she led a few dozen Americans onstage to perform. The only songs familiar to all were gospel, patriotic, or nursery rhymes, so they sang those while the delegates from Japan, to Poland, to Brazil looked on. They made the wooden boards creak with a replica of a square dance. Later in the week, Seeger reprised the performance, wearing a polka dot dress for her appearance at the Bolshoi Theatre where the audience shook the chandeliers and red drapery with a standing ovation for "Kumbaya" and "Michael Row the Boat Ashore."
In her new memoir, First Time Ever, Seeger transcribes her diary from that week: "My heart almost burst and our tears certainly did. I am hoarse from my own enthusiasm and shrieking … how many faces and eyes did I look into, how many hands did I touch."
Just as the State Department warned of Communist propaganda, Soviet newspapers like Molodoi kommunist had spent months cautioning Russians not to give in to the temptations of the Americans. But Russian excitement to see and talk with foreigners for the first time since the days of Stalin proved uncontainable.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.