May 3, 2019, is an auspicious day in music history. It would’ve been the 100th birthday of Pete Seeger, the late, legendary singer-songwriter and one of the pioneers of American folk music. Seeger, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 94, had an incredible career that stretched from his early days in the 1940s singing with Woody Guthrie in the Almanac Singers to his songwriting efforts that produced such indelible singles as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” and “If I Had a Hammer.”
As his songs demonstrate, Seeger was a dedicated activist, lending his voice and support to civil rights, labor rights, and the antiwar movement. He was also passionate about the environment, and the cause was a personal one: In 1949, Seeger moved to Beacon, NY, on land overlooking the Hudson River, where he had a bird’s-eye view of the steady degradation of that great waterway as it was fouled with pollution and industrial contamination. New-York Historical Society’s current exhibition Hudson Rising demonstrates that by the middle of the 20th century, the Hudson River had become so filthy that it was, in Seeger’s words, a “convenient sewer.” As America celebrates Seeger’s centennial, we wanted to look back at his novel idea to make people fall in love with the Hudson again.
In the mid-1960s, Seeger read a book on the history of Hudson River sailing sloops loaned to him by a neighbor in Cold Spring. Inspired, Seeger soon returned with the idea of recreating a sloop. The conversations led to Ander Saunders, a founder of Scenic Hudson, a Hudson River valley group dedicated to fighting Consolidated Edison’s proposed hydroelectric plant at Storm King Mountain, not far from Seeger’s home. (The battle over Storm King is also detailed in Hudson Rising.)
Saunders offered to host a fundraising party where Seeger could perform, and in the summer of 1966, the nonprofit Hudson River Sloop Restoration formally began. As the New York Times reported that fall, the group hoped to build a boat modeled on the sailing vessels used by early Dutch and English settlers, which traveled the Hudson well into the 19th century. (Visitors can see a detailed model of the resulting ship Clearwater in Hudson Rising.) Seeger told the paper, “People might think it’s the most frivolous thing in the world to raise money for a sailboat. But we want people to love the Hudson, not to think it is a convenient sewer.”
Seeger was not the only one concerned about contamination in the Hudson. In 1965, New York State voters had approved a Pure Waters Bond Act, earmarking nearly $1 billion for building and upgrading sewage treatment plants and other efforts to clean up the river. The Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, also founded in 1966, focused on prosecuting polluters on the river, bringing cases against a number of industries dumping toxic chemicals. Still, Seeger’s celebrity and the romance of sailing brought new and different interests to the fight.
Seeger gave a series of concerts up and down the Hudson River valley through the summers of 1967 and 1968. Charging a few dollars’ admission for daylong folk concerts, the events would attract 8,000 to 9,000 people to each show. By the end of the first year, the group had enough members and interest to start bringing in foundation and grant money. Some of the region’s wealthier inhabitants, including Reader’s Digest co-founder Lila Wallace and the Rockefeller family, contributed to the cause, as well. The sloop Clearwater eventually was launched from a dry dock in Maine on May 17, 1969.
The ship sailed from Maine to New York all summer, crewed largely by musicians who gave 25 fundraising concerts along the way, before finally arriving in New York Harbor. On August 1, the sloop tied up at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, where, according to the New York Times report, it was met by over 100 people, including dignitaries such as Mayor John Lindsay. From Liberty Island, Mayor Lindsay raised the sail and steered the sloop towards the East River, while “a Coast Guard launch escorted the sloop, and a fireboat shot white plumes of water into the air.” The Clearwater spent the rest of August sailing up and down the Hudson.
The journey was just beginning: In April 1970, the sloop sailed to Washington, D.C. to participate in the first Earth Day. Seeger told the New York Times, “Only the federal government has the power to enact and enforce the laws that are needed.” In many ways, his ideas were right on time. Just a few years after that first Earth Day, the federal government would pass the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts and create the Environmental Protection Agency. The Hudson River was finally on the rebound.
Today, the Clearwater organization carries on Seeger’s mission through advocacy, innovative educational programs—often held on the sloop itself—and the annual Clearwater Festival, which this year takes place from June 15-16. The ship also remains inextricably linked to the man behind its creation: Seeger even filmed his first music video aboard it, for his final single, “God’s Counting on Me, God’s Counting on You.” But 50 years after the sloop’s launch, it’s another Seeger song that comes to mind: “My Dirty Stream,” which rings as hopeful and true as it did in the 1960s:
Sailing down my dirty stream
Still I love it and I’ll keep the dream
That some day, though maybe not this year
My Hudson River will once again run clear.
Listen to the song:
Visit Hudson Rising at New-York Historical between now and Aug. 4.
Written by Bekah Friedman, Project Historian for Hudson Rising