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25 January 2017

’56: From the Streets to the States – Hungarian and American Poets View the ’56 Revolution

"In 1956 after eight years of dictatorial Russian-imposed Communism, one in ten Hungarians had been imprisoned, sent to a concentration camp or executed. As a result virtually every family in the country knew of some relation of theirs who had suffered terribly at the hands of the regime. Most people would also say that such suffering happened 'without cause' or 'unfairly'."

Foremost among the Americans who acted to aid the thousands of Hungarian refugees who fled after the Russian tanks streamed across the country and the Russian Army with its overwhelming fire-power and man power re-occupied the cities and countryside, was Elvis Presley. Appearing on the “Ed Sullivan Show” in January 1957 Presley through Sullivan issued a plea for donations to the Hungarian Relief Fund established to aid Hungarian refugees. A variety programme, “The Ed Sullivan Show” was the most popular hour on American Sunday night television. Sullivan paid Elvis double the usual fee which proved well worth the price as 55 million people tuned in to watch young Elvis who was only 21! The television network broadcasting the programme insisted, however, that cameramen could only show Presley from the waist up. The result was that those in the studio saw and reacted to his famous gyrations which had earned him the nickname of “Elvis the Pelvis” but the folks at home did not. Sullivan and Presley had quarrelled earlier because Elvis had promised his mother, Gladys Presley that he would do a gospel song on TV which Sullivan adamantly opposed, but Elvis and his contract won out. So on his last appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” Elvis backed up by The Jordanaires, a well-known gospel acapella group, performed “Peace in the Valley”, a gentle, haunting Black gospel song that he dedicated to the plight of Hungarian refugees. Originally composed in 1937 by “the father of black gospel music”, Thomas A. Dorsey, for the great Mahalia Jackson, “Peace in the Valley” certainly was appropriate to describe the plight of the Hungarian refugees while at the same time offering a hope of a better day after this dark night. (Elvis’s version differs from Dorsey’s original composition. The lyrics below are those sung by Elvis, but the song should be credited to Dorsey.)

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