A personal tribute to the legendary folk musician and social activist
We stood in a line, our feet braced against the gentle rocking of the boat, our young fingers grasping the thick, braided halyard. Then, at the directions of the crew, we tugged that line hard, hand-over-hand, and the beautiful white mainsail rose above our heads, catching the wind coming down the Hudson River. The majestic sloop Clearwater surged forward, away from the shores of Manhattan.
A replica of the mid 19th century sloops that once commanded the waters of the Hudson, the Clearwater was created through the vision of musician and activist Pete Seeger, unquestionably one of the most important social and cultural figures of the 20th century, who passed away Monday at the age of 94.
In the mid 1960s, when the Hudson was so polluted that fish had disappeared over miles of its length, Seeger proposed “to build a boat to save the river.”
"Mary Travers, of Peter, Paul and Mary, says, 'What are you building a boat for? There’s a war on!, This is a distraction” Seeger once recalled, “All I could say was, well, we’re not aiming just to sail it. We’re going to clean up the river.”
In the decades since, more than a half-million children (and their teachers and parents) have sailed aboard the Clearwater, learning to love and care for the river. The result has been a political and social force which has not only cleaned up the Hudson but sent ripples of influence throughout the environmental movement worldwide, as the Clearwater inspires and educates future activists.
My father, who sailed the world with the U.S. Merchant Marines, took me to see Seeger perform at the National Maritime Union hall in Greenwich Village when I was young enough to sit at Seeger’s feet with other children during his concert. There I first heard Seeger’s classic songs like “"If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," and "Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season).”
My dad then took me for a sail on the Clearwater, a few years after the boat’s maiden voyage. Decades later, I’ve taken my own children aboard, seeking to share the lessons that went far deeper than raising a sail, with messages of collective empowerment, social responsibility -- and the power of music to drive change.
That message resonates each year at the Great Hudson River Revival, the annual benefit concert for the Clearwater, which again will be staged this year June 21 and 22 at Croton Point Park on the shores of the Hudson River.
And that message has resonated with other musicians and their fans through the years.
One of Seeger’s last high-profile performances took place with another group of music activists.
At Farm Aid 2013, the annual benefit for America’s family farmers staged Sept. 21 in Saratoga Springs, New York, Seeger was a surprise guest. Onstage he joined Farm Aid’s guiding foursome: Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews.
This time I didn’t sit at Seeger’s feet during this performance, but I was covering the event for Billboard.
"Oh, but ain't that America, for you and me!" sang Mellencamp, performing his hit "Pink Houses." He then told the crowd at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, "That song was inspired by people who had come before me, that were trying to make a difference with music." Specifically, said Mellencamp, he had been thinking of Woody Guthrie's anthem "This Land Is Your Land."
"I'm so humbled," he continued, "to bring out the guy who really made that song what it is... Ladies and gentlemen, Pete Seeger!"
Seeger walked out to an extended roar from the sold-out crowd of 25,000. It was a heartfelt welcome for a man who has shaped American music and culture for decades.
"Friends," began Seeger, hoarsely, "at 94, I don't have much of a voice left. But here's a song I think you know. And if you sing it, why, we'll make a good sound."
After a solo round on his banjo for "If I Had A Hammer" -- with thousands of backup singers -- Seeger welcomed Nelson, Mellencamp, Young and Matthews for "This Land Is Your Land."
Seeger's compatriots smiled with glee as they shared the stage with the aging but energetic singer, who declared, "I've got a verse you've never heard before."
New York is my home
/ New York is your home
From the upstate mountains / Down to the ocean foam
With all kinds of people / Yes, we're polychrome
New York was meant to be frack free!
Seeger's musical protest about pending plans to allow hydro-fracking in New York State drew further roars of approval of the crowd.
After Seeger’s performance, I looked at my phone and saw a text message inviting me to come backstage to meet a man who, since my childhood, had been a musical hero and inspiration.
In his dressing room, Seeger captivated visitors with his storytelling.
Seeger said he came to Farm Aid because, remarkably, he and Nelson had never previously met or shared a stage.
And this musician, who has proved you can change the world with a five-string banjo and a sing-along, said he recognized the common thread between the activism of Farm Aid and his Clearwater sloop.
"It's all these relatively little things," he said, "which are going to save the human race."