On November 10, 1989, we were driving south on I-5. “We” were Libbie Anthony, Velvet Neifert, and me. We sang together as Women, Women and Song, and we were on our way to Corvallis, Oregon, to do a concert that night.
We were in our usual configuration: Velvet driving, Libbie riding shotgun, me in the back seat.
Somewhere north of Portland Libbie asked Velvet, “Did you hear what’s happening in Berlin?”
“Yes!” Velvet said. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
“What’s happening in Berlin?” I asked.
They told me that the Berlin Wall was starting to come down.
Amazing. Astonishing. I was gobsmacked.
The Berlin Wall went up in August 1961, enclosing West Berlin, which was surrounded by East Germany.
My husband’s father was stationed in Kaiserslautern, Germany at the time and all the American military was on high alert at this perceived possible threat. What Rick remembered most vividly was that tanks were running down the autobahn, and he hitched rides to the swimming pool on the tanks that August. A kid’s perspective on world affairs.
As we drove along I-5 on that November day in 1989 my astonishment began to take shape as a lyric, and I got out my pen and notebook and began writing it down:
“For women and men to live in freedom, tear down the wall
For brothers and sisters to stand together, tear down the wall.”
The wall was built, first of barbed wire, then gradually of concrete almost twelve feet high, with a wide, empty “kill zone” on the East German side that troops guarded with machine guns. The official East German line was that the wall was to keep western fascists out.
Before the wall, West Berlin was the easiest place for East Germans to defect. The wall made it much harder, but people still tried to defect. Some succeeded. Some were killed in the attempt.
“We’ll stop and remember the ones who died, tear down the wall
Trying to reach the other side, tear down the wall.”
In June 1963, President John F. Kennedy went to West Berlin and gave his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, which inspired the people of West Berlin and annoyed the Soviets.
In 1989 there were revolutions in Eastern bloc countries, including Hungary and Poland. Civil unrest began to build in East Berlin. On November 9, 1989, the East German and East Berlin governments finally said, “Open the gates. People may pass freely between East and West Berlin.”
And the people went through the gates, and the news went around the world.
“Open the gates, let the flood tides roll, tear down the wall
East or west, we are all going home, tear down the wall.”
People from both sides were climbing on top of the wall, cheering. People were chipping away at the wall with chisels and hammers, breaking off chunks for souvenirs, opening holes in the wall.
One miraculous thing about the opening of the Berlin Wall was how quietly it happened. There were no battles fought.
“If the human heart will sing its song, tear down the wall
The music will right the ancient wrong, tear down the wall.”
This is the song’s chorus:
“Tear down the walls between us!
Brick by brick and stone by stone
If this winter is to end in springtime
Tear down the walls.”
I told Libbie and Velvet, “Hey, I have a song.” I wrote out the words, and we began singing the song and working out the harmonies as we drove down the Willamette Valley.
We got so involved in the song that we drove past the turnoff to Corvallis. At some point I saw a hill on our left and thought, uh oh. We’re getting close to Eugene. So, we took an offramp around Brownsville, managed to get over to 99W, and drove up to Corvallis from the south, still singing.
That night we sang the song in our concert. The crowd went wild. After that we included the song in our repertoire for as long as we stayed together as a trio.
I thought “Tear Down the Wall” was a topical song about the Berlin Wall when I wrote it, but I have realized since that there is always someone wanting to put up a wall. It’s all about trying to control people, keeping someone in or keeping someone out.
Tearing down walls is always topical. So, I have started singing the song again.
Of course, once you’ve torn down a wall, you have won the right to tear down the next wall. So lively on up, people. We got some wall tearing down to do.