The NGDB, Pete Anderson (Latvian music icon) and the USSR … by john mceuen

In 1977 the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band became the first American group to perform in the Soviet Union, an historic event of 28 sold out concerts that was covered by various media including U.S. News and World Report, CBS Nighttime News and Rolling Stone. Jim Brown, documentary director of “Rockin’ the Iron Curtain“ (it explores how American music ‘brought down the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union itself’, due for release in 2011) contends that “with their Soviet tour, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band opened the door that allowed this to come about.”

140 million viewers saw their one-hour performance on a Moscow Television show. Their 28 sold-out concerts caused scenes still talked today about.

During the tour (in Riga, Latvia), they crossed paths with Pete Anderson, already an underground music legend in his country. A friendship started between Pete and band member John McEuen that continues to this day, that recently led to an historic event in their lives, one that could only be dreamed of when they met. It would have seemed then an impossible dream, but it came about when Pete made a cameo appearance during the NGDB’s headline performance at Norway’s Seljord Country Music Festival, putting Anderson and the band together for what would have been an impossible and illegal pairing in the ‘70’s.

The importance of this circular path is best understood when one knows some of Pete’s journey, and the effects of American music on the lives of those in the Soviet Union:

When Pete started his music career performing Little Richard songs on stage in 1959 – it was an illegal activity. Although he was continually harassed, stopped, had electricity turned off during shows, audiences dispersed, warned of arrest, and physically threatened continually by the KGB.. But he continued. His art and music developed, and the word spread – Pete Anderson became the underground Latvian rocker people sought out, both for his representation of American rockabilly music and his own growing list original songs..

But.. he became too popular.

(filmed while the Soviets still controlled Latvia.)

By 1972, after years of defying the authorities by performing and building up a large Baltic fan base, the KGB threatened to kill his newborn daughter if he didn’t stop performing American music…at which time he went into depressed seclusion in the countryside outside of Riga, Latvia’s capital, playing and writing only for friends and very private parties.

One night two years later, he went where a college a band was playing the usual “approved” music. Invited and coaxed on stage to sing, Pete gave the performance he was known for, but after a couple of songs realized his mistake. With thoughts of his wife, soon to deliver their 2nd child, on his mind, he quickly exited the building to head home to his family. The KGB met him outside and nearly beat him to death–to be revived in the hospital later that night.

With further threats to him and his family, Pete returned to his house, got lost in alcohol, and didn’t sing in public again until the late 1980’s, when the Kremlin started to lose its grip and control over Latvia. As threats of prison and physical harm began to finally fade, in 1989 he was allowed to make his first record (after 30 years!), and his career “officially” began.

Pete is a now a music hero and star in the entire Baltic region, and freely headlines his own engagements. He has made many music videos and albums, and continues his successful career today. In 2006, Latvia honored him with his own postage stamp – representing and honoring his impact as a cultural hero and great music artist.

The circle of music was unbroken July 30 when Pete Anderson joined the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band for a cameo appearance (during their classic version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”) as they headlined Norway’s Country Festival in Seljord. Pete, flying in from Latvia for this event, was doing something that would have been illegal, life threatening and impossible in an earlier era.

It is ironic that even prior to the 1970’s it was deemed by the KGB that American music was a capitalist plot that could cause great damage to and ‘overthrow’ Communism; in the same period, many in America declared Rock and Roll a communist plot to overthrow America. For once, the KGB was right on target.

At this current time, when America’s past influences in the world are often questioned and criticized, this is a great example of how American music has helped effect a great change socially and politically. It has been said that the Dirt Band helped create the first cracks in the Iron Curtain; that after their 28-concert sold out Soviet tour in 1977 other acts were to follow. It took 7 years until then… and the music helped set them free.

(filmed while the Soviets still controlled Latvia.)

The show. July 31, 2010 Seljord, Norway

Pete arrived Seljord excited and ready to rock, dressed for a Buddy Holly album, with a smile to match his excitement When I met him at the hotel, Jimmy had been talking about hot cars and stuff American, and Pete fell right in to the rap.

Later, as he watched the sound check, I wondered what was going through his mind. He told me “It is like a dream, something I never thought possible. Playing my favorite music with a real American band”. We waited for the end of the set, when his turn would come.

A great festival audience and hot response led to the encore that would bring Pete out. After an appropriate introduction celebrating this event, one that would have put him in jail in another era, or brought personal harm to him and/or his family as it had, Pete came out with guitar and voice to sing on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” His contribution turned this encore of ours in to a response that heated the Norse audience even more, and led to being called out for a second encore when they would not quit. So we didn’t quit either, and lit in to “Jambalaya.”

Pete traded verses with Jeff, sang on the choruses, and played rhythm guitar like he had been doing it with us for years. They went crazy, that crowd… and after a show that had people singing back our own words for many songs as loud as the monitors, with rousing applause and screams – our best acceptance ever in Norway, especially for the new music from the current Speed of Life album, they just got louder than ever… but we had been on almost two hours and at 1:00 a.m. it was time to call in the dogs and head on back to Bowlegs. (And, earlier in the set, that song went over like a hit!)

Thank you Pete, for your dedication and pursuit of American music, and giving us a new appreciation of that. Thanks to all those who gave us a career that allowed this to come about, for you are all part of it. And, especially thanks to all those in the past who fought for the freedoms we often take for granted, but seem to exercise every day, that made this dream a reality.

The next two recently made videos include Pete’s wife of ten years – a trained chemist, who threw out her test tubes and picked up a double bass – backing him.