Songwriting is as much about following your heart as it is about finding the music that allows you to take the journey. Some years ago, I had found an interesting chord pattern on the guitar and over the next several weeks I added a melody. It seemed romantic... perhaps ‘French’? But I didn't know where to take it. During my solo section of a Peter Paul and Mary concert, I played the chord pattern for the audience and they responded so enthusiastically that I asked them to tell me what they thought the song was about. I received this note backstage after the concert, “I think its about freedom.”
For months, I puzzled over the direction and details of the song's story: Jean Claude became the name of a young Frenchman walking to school in 1941. A complicated rhyme scheme (or an inspiration far beyond my knowledge), placed him in Alsace-Lorraine and spoke of his friend Michel on a train bound for Germany. Another year passed and the lyric was still incomplete when my wife Betty and I visited France in the fall of 2003. When we found ourselves in a bookstore near the Eiffel tower, I wandered over to a cut-out bin of used books, magazines and discarded pamphlets and there, with the cover torn off, i found a crudely printed booklet with a single photo on its exposed first page with these words printed underneath:
The picture was that of a large steam locomotive with perhaps twenty or thirty men standing on the tracks in front. They were wearing striped pajamas...no, not pajamas. I realized that these men would soon be herded like cattle onto this train, separated from their families forever and transported to concentration camps in Poland and Germany. As I lifted the book, I sensed I was holding the song in my hand. I knew with certainty one of these men was Michel.