An Inside Look at the History of Clearwater

We dive into the multi-tiered organization and music festival on the 50th anniversary of the launch of the sloop and the 100th anniversary of Pete Seeger’s birth.


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Pete Seeger, along with wife Toshi, founded Clearwater in 1966 in an effort to purge the Hudson River of pollution.

Photo by Econosmith

The length and breadth of the late Pete Seeger’s musical activism — in terms of impact and sheer longevity — is without precedent: front and center in the cause of justice and human rights for a good seven decades. “I’ve been planting seeds all my life,” he once said. “And you know the parable in the Bible: Some seeds fall on the pathway and get stomped on; they don’t grow.  Some fall on stones — they don’t even sprout. And I have a song — but some seeds fall on hallowed ground/they grow and multiply a thousandfold.”

One seed that has taken root, grown, and multiplied a thousandfold is Clearwater, the multi-tiered organization launched by Seeger in 1966 and still, all these years later, thriving and cross-pollinating.

The original impetus behind Clearwater was an effort to purge Pete Seeger’s beloved Hudson River of the rampant, unfettered pollution that was steadily choking the life out of the river. “We want people to love the Hudson,” Seeger said, “not to think of it as a convenient sewer.”


The Clearwater sloop takes passengers on educational sails.

Photo by Dorice Arden


Pete Seeger was never one for the purely symbolic gesture. The centerpiece of this activism to restore the Hudson River was and is the Clearwater, a boat lovingly constructed to resemble the once-ubiquitous Dutch sloops that sailed up and down the Hudson. The Clearwater is a rarity — a floating educational center and activist hub that hosts some 12,000 people a year. Most of these visitors are schoolkids, who get the opportunity to partake in hands-on lessons in sustainability and planetary survival: aquatic activism.

Clearwater’s renown is such that it also is the de facto name for the Great Hudson River Revival. Chances are that the Great Hudson River Revival may not strike much of a responsive chord. It is its unofficial, widely used name — the Clearwater Festival — that engenders the familiarity.

This ongoing, annual event that first commenced in 1978, during the midpoint of the administration of Jimmy Carter, is one of the country’s longest-running musical festivals. (And earlier incarnations of the festival actually date back to the 1960s.) The one year the festival wasn’t held was in 2016; the reason was to ensure the boat’s longevity.

“The sloop,” relates Maija Niemisto, Clearwater’s former education director, “was under a huge hull restoration and it was determined that focusing our efforts on ensuring that the boat could sail safely into the foreseeable future was a higher priority than hosting the festival that year.”


Seeger performing at The Great Hudson River Revival.

Photo by Econosmith, Provided by Hudson River Sloop Clearwater

 

The 2019 Clearwater Festival will be held on Father’s Day weekend (June 15 and 16) in Croton-on-Hudson’s Croton Point Park. Two important anniversaries undergird this year's festivities: It’s the 50th anniversary of the launch of the sloop Clearwater. And had he lived, Pete Seeger would have turned 100 this year. (And he came very close. He died in 2014, at age 94.)

It was an article of faith for Seeger that music could and did reach across barriers and societal fault lines. And he believed that art itself — in all its various manifestations — could “save the world. Visual arts, dancing, acting arts, cooking arts… and I would include sports. Joe DiMaggio reaching for a fly ball — that was great dancing!”

The Clearwater Festival does not include baseball, but Pete Seeger’s ethos of a broad-based, inclusive community is an integral component to the annual goings-on. Niemisto estimates that total attendance for the two-day festival will be 10,000, aided and assisted by hundreds of volunteers. The festival bills itself as a family-friendly gathering, and this is not mere rubric: the festival is often a multi-generational affair.

Whole families have been known to camp out for the entire weekend. Children in attendance are engaged and kept safe in a specially designated children’s area “that teaches, engages, and challenges.” The festival is wheelchair accessible; sign-language interpreters are on hand. There is an activist area in the form of tents, in which a plethora of organizations avail themselves to festivalgoers in a special sort of outreach.


Left: A young Pete Seeger playing the banjo; right: the keel-laying ceremony of America’s environmental flagship, the sloop Clearwater.

Right photo provided by Hudson River Sloop Clearwater

 

Pete Seeger, of course, looms large in the Clearwater Festival’s firmament, but as Niemisto relates, much of the festival’s guiding ethos is owed to Toshi Seeger — the “driving force” and Pete Seeger’s wife for almost 70 years: a formidable, behind-the-scenes figure in her own right. Zero waste, a legacy of Toshi Seeger, is another festival constant, with recycling and composting an integral part.

But it should be remembered that the Clearwater is a festival, a celebration. There have been displays and demonstrations of crafts — handcrafted soaps, wood-turned bowls, hand-painted glass jewelry and wall art — and a green-living expo, including the likes of toxin-free personal-care products, info on green energy, and much in the way of health and wellness. There is an abundance of food vendors who offer an eclectic selection.

A cursory perusal of last year’s gastronomic offerings included food from Ecuador and Puerto Rico, vegan platters, falafel, strawberry rhubarb ice cream — and the plebeian Philly cheesesteak. And given Pete Seeger’s strong belief in the universality of art, the Clearwater Festival offers dance performances, storytelling, sing-alongs... and jugglers, whose attendance seems to be de rigueur for any self-respecting outdoor festival.


The Great Hudson River Revival offers incredible performances all weekend long. Some past performers include Joe Purdy (above) and Valerie June (below).

photo by Augusto F. Menezes

 

And, of course, music. It is music that was the connecting thread in all of Pete Seeger’s activism, and music is the bulwark of the revival. There are five stages and dozens upon dozens of musicians. Arlo Guthrie, Natalie Merchant, and the Indigo Girls have all graced its stages. Its musical spectrum encompasses some intriguing territory; performances have included the alt-folk of Ani DiFranco (who returns this year), the eccentricity of They Might Be Giants, and more jazz and blues than one would imagine, including Mavis Staples this year, and in previous years, the legendary Sonny Rollins and drummer extraordinaire Jack DeJohnette.


Photo by Econosmith

 

The Great Hudson River Revival/Clearwater Festival’s longevity is astounding, but ultimately not that much of a surprise. Pete Seeger felt that enjoyable activism was not a contradiction: It was an essential. His music was made to be listened to and sung along with. Nobody attends a festival to have a bad time. The Revival, with its bucolic setting, boat rides, storytelling, food, creative offerings, humor, and music, has been a case in point for a good 40 years.


Information on the 2019 festival — and the Clearwater organization in general — can be found at www.clearwater.org.

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