The Hudson River sloop Clearwater seen from the bow of its sister boat, the Mystic Whaler.
The Hudson River sloop Clearwater seen from the bow of its sister boat, the Mystic Whaler.
Courtesy of Econosmith.com

Aboard the Clearwater: Five Decades of Environmental Activism Rooted In Music

Pete Seeger's Hudson River sloop is one of the nation’s oldest music-inspired activist organizations. At the 40th Clearwater Festival, Jeff Tweedy, Ani DiFranco and more will sing for its future.

“We’re going to need everyone’s hands in!”

On a gray, rainy, late April morning, Maija Niemisto, in a knit hat and blue slicker, stands before the mast of a sloop in the middle of the Hudson River, shouting encouragement to teenagers from Saugerties High School (school nickname: the Sawyers). The students stand before her in a row, feet planted, focused, grasping a braided halyard.

“Haul the line,” Niemisto calls out. “Saw-yers—HAUL!” 

The teens repeat the call, then rhythmically tug the line, slowly, steadily, raising the boat’s mainsail and boom, a combined weight of some 3,000 pounds. 

The Hudson River sloop Clearwater moves forward on the wind.

[Lead photo above courtesy of Econosmith]

The students from Saugerties, a riverfront town 100-plus miles north of New York City, are on a field trip like no other. During this first passenger sail of the season for the Clearwater, the teens move in small groups about the deck of the boat, which is designed as a replica of the type of Dutch sloops that sailed the Hudson in the 19th century. Guided by Niemisto, the sloop’s education director, and her fellow crew members, the students cast nets overboard to (temporarily) retrieve fish thriving just below the river’s surface. Through water tubes and microscopes, the group examines the quality of the Hudson’s waters. On a navigation chart, they discover their position in the river’s channel and help steer the 106-foot-long boat, with the help of captain Nick Rogers.

As the rain picks up, some of the students climb down a short ladder into the sloop’s cabin below the deck, joined by another crew member. Around the galley table, the talk turns to music as the students are asked about their favorite current artists. “Ed Sheeran,” says one. “Eminem,” says another.

No one, of course, mentions Pete Seeger.

But Seeger, the folk music icon who passed away in 2014 at age 94, conceived of the Clearwater in the early 1960s with a simple goal. “We’re going to build a boat to save the river,” he said. With Seeger’s inspiration, and the commitment of multiple generations of leaders, crew and volunteers, the sloop has achieved much more.

Five decades on, the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater organization, founded in 1966, is one of the nation’s oldest activist organizations with roots in music. It is widely recognized for its role in the decades-long cleanup of the Hudson, for its advocacy of environmental and social justice campaigns and for its environmental education, which has inspired other sailing-based programs nationwide. Its history of female captains has given it a unique role within the women’s movement. And from its mast flies a rainbow flag, a symbol of its trips dedicated to empowering LGBTQ young people.

The Great Hudson River Revival—the Clearwater Festival, for short—marks its 40th anniversary June 16-17 in Croton Point Park, on the banks of the Hudson, 40 miles north of New York. Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, Ani DiFranco, They Might Be Giants, The Mavericks and Rhiannon Giddens are among scores of artists singing for the future of the sloop.

“The Clearwater Festival has a very definitive purpose,” says Arlo Guthrie, whose father, Woody Guthrie, traveled and sang with Seeger in the 1940s, and who began performing with Seeger himself in 1968. “It’s not just for the love of music. It’s not only for educational purposes. There are all kinds of reasons that people have festivals. The purpose of the Clearwater Festival is very succinct; it’s to help keep the Clearwater going.”

In the mid 1960s, Seeger was ahead of his time as an environmentalist. The first Earth Day did not take place until April 1970. (An Earth Day flag also flies from the Clearwater’s mast today). The passage of the Clean Water Act took place two years later.

But for Seeger -- whose career began during the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt and who performed with Bruce Springsteen in 2009 at the Lincoln Memorial on the eve of the inauguration of Barack Obama -- the Clearwater’s crusade was a natural progression in a life devoted to the power of music to achieve change.

In songs he wrote or popularized, Seeger sang for the labor movement (“Talkin’ Union”), progressive politics (“If I Had A Hammer”), the anti-war movement (“Where Have All The Flowers Gone”), the fight against economic inequality (Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”) and the civil rights movement (“We Shall Overcome”).

With the lifelong support of his wife, Toshi (who predeceased him in 2013 at age 91), Seeger toured the world for decades. His embrace of internationalism, and cultural and musical diversity, also is reflected today at the Clearwater Festival, as curated and booked by Steve Lurie of Music Without Borders.

Tom Chapin, who performed a tribute his brother Harry Chapin at last year’s festival and returns this year, recalls with amusement: “I used to talk to Toshi and say, 'I’d love to play Clearwater.' And she’d say, 'Yeah, Tom, but you’re just another tall white guy with a guitar. We got lots of you.'

“What they really wanted,” continues Chapin, “was this idea of all races, all music and a celebration of the human animal. That’s totally Pete’s ethos, and always has been.”

The festival draws “so many potent and beautiful and diverse people,” says DiFranco, the singer/songwriter and activist who first performed at the event in the early 90s and who plays Saturday evening. “It’s one of the shining examples of what a folk festival, quote unquote, can be. It’s community. It’s politics. It’s the intersection of art and society.”

To appreciate the half-century journey of the Hudson River sloop Clearwater, navigate first through earlier chapters of Seeger’s life.

In 1949, at a low point in his career, Seeger and his wife were living with two young children in the brick home of Toshi’s parents at 129 MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, when they decided to leave the city for the Hudson Valley. They used their savings to purchase 17 acres of land in Beacon, New York, overlooking the Hudson River. They built a log cabin themselves, where they would raise their family and live for the rest of their lives.

Within a year, Seeger’s fortune turned. In 1950, the Weavers—the folk quartet of Seeger, Lee Hayes, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hillerman—reached No. 1 in Billboard (on the Best Sellers in Stores chart) with “Goodnight Irene.” The song stayed atop the pop chart for 13 weeks and the Weavers followed up that success with hits including “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and “Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight).”

But the Weavers, and particularly Seeger, were soon ensnared in the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s. After refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his political associations, Seeger in 1961 was found guilty of contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in prison. But an appeals court the following year dismissed the charges.

In the folk music revival of the early 1960s, the Kingston Trio brought Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” to No. 21 on the Hot 100 and Peter, Paul and Mary reached the top 10 with “If I Had A Hammer.” Seeger remained on the front lines of the decade’s battles for change. In 1965, he joined those who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. on the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

Back home in Beacon, the family cabin—and the Hudson River—offered the singer refuge. He bought what he called “a little plastic bathtub of a boat” and learned to sail, inspired to write songs including “Sailing Down My Golden River.”

But the Hudson River in the 1960s, as Arlo Guthrie notes, “on closer inspection, was filthy. It had degenerated from a wonderful source of pure water to a polluted mess. Pete was incensed by that—angry that the river he had loved all his life was part of a pattern, of simply treating nature as if it was just a dumping ground.”

If only Seeger could draw people down to the river—out on the river—and inspire them to care about its future.

At the time, “Pete had a friend named Vic Schwarz," says Betsy Garthwaite, president of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater’s board of directors, and a former captain of the sloop. “They played music together. And Vic was talking to him about this book that he had called Sloops of the Hudson.” First published in 1908, the book included illustrations of the graceful single-masted sloops that carried goods to market, sailing up and down the Hudson in the previous century.

“I proposed an impractical and hopeful idea, typical of a banjo picker, I suppose,” Seeger later wrote. “What would happen if a group of people got together and built a replica of one of the old cargo sloops? We’d take her up and down the river and at each port we’d do something very simple. We’d try to teach people to love their river again.”

It was “another of Pete’s crazy ideas,” Guthrie recalls with affection. “But I was very enthusiastic when Pete would discuss the idea for the sloop and he was so excited.”

And the key to raising support—and money—for Seeger’s “crazy idea” was music.

One of the first music-filled fundraising “picnics” for the as-yet-unnamed sloop, described then as a “floating Hudson River museum,” took place in the riverfront town of Garrison, N.Y. on Oct. 2, 1966. “Some people might think it’s the most frivolous thing in the world to raise money for a sailboat,” said Seeger, according to report on the event in the New York Times. “But we want people to love the Hudson not to think of it as a convenient sewer.”

As fundraising continued, Seeger’s search for a shipbuilder took him first to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, then to a shipyard in Maine owned by the late Joel White (son of the writer E.B. White) and finally to Harvey F. Gamage and his shipyard in South Bristol, Maine. Gamage worked with a design naval architect Cyrus Hamlin, “an unsung hero in the story,” notes Garthwaite. Hamlin’s work captured the elegant design of the 19th century sloops while assuring the Clearwater met modern Coast Guard requirements to carry passengers.

With its keel laid on Oct. 18, 1968, the Clearwater was launched in the waters of Maine on May 17, 1969—two weeks after Seeger’s 50th birthday. Garthwaite laughs when she thinks about the timing. “You hear about people having a midlife crisis, how a man might feel like he’s losing his youth and want to go out and buy a sports car. And what does this man do?” With Seeger and others aboard, on June 27, 1969, the Clearwater set sail from Maine to New York.

As the Clearwater arrived on its maiden voyage in that summer of 1969, the Hudson Valley already had become the setting for an historic environmental battle, waging through actions in the courts. Just south of Seeger’s hometown of Beacon, on the west side of the river, rises Storm King Mountain, once described by the late architecture writer Vincent Scully as “a primitive embodiment of the energies of the earth.”

The New York City utility company Consolidated Edison in 1962 had proposed to blast away the north side of the mountain to build a hydroelectric generating plant that would tower more than 10 stories above the Hudson. Almost 20 years would pass before ConEd abandoned the plans. But a turning point in the battle occurred on Dec. 29, 1965, with a ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference, the environmental group that led the fight.

“It was a landmark decision,” recalls Garthwaite, “the Storm King doctrine.” The decision marked the first time that environmental activists gained standing to sue in federal court to prove harm to nature. The Hudson Valley, home of the Clearwater, had become the birthplace of environmental law.

The courts and lawmakers were catching up to the concerns that led Seeger to create his “boat to save the river.”

“Clearwater was the first organization to successfully sue a polluter in New York State under the federal Clean Water Act,” says Garthwaite. A Clearwater leader in the early 1970s named John Cronin (who later teamed up with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in the environmental group Riverkeeper) had organized a People’s Pipewatch of volunteers who discovered a Beacon tape factory dumping waste into a Hudson tributary.

The organization’s activism continued to migrate from the river current and concert stages to the courthouse and legislative chambers. It joined other groups in pushing for federal action that forced General Electric to clean up PCB pollutants from a 40-mile stretch of the upper Hudson. Its experts have testified against the re-licensing of the Indian Point nuclear power plant on the Hudson. Most recently, a suit filed by Hudson River Sloop Clearwater has sought to block billions in New York State subsidies for aging nuclear power plants, arguing those taxpayer funds would be better used to support the transition to renewable energy.

Through its half-century of activism, the Clearwater has also surged forward on waves of cultural change.

Garthwaite, who became a captain aboard the sloop in 1992, notes she was far from the first woman to fill that role. In 1980, the boat’s captain was an environmentalist named Peter Willcox. He left the Clearwater organization to become captain of the Greenpeace protest vessel Rainbow Warrior (and guided that ship when was it sabotaged by explosives off the coast of New Zealand in 1985).  In departing the Clearwater, he urged that Cate Cronin take his place as the sloop’s first woman at the helm. “She grew up in Maine and she worked on the the windjammers [sailing ships] as a teenager,” says Garthwaite of Cronin, “and the only job you could get on a Maine windjammer as a girl was a cook.”  Many women have followed Cronin since, including the Clearwater’s current co-captain, Aleythea Dolstad, and port captain Emmaline Hathaway.

In 2001, the Clearwater launched a program, Young Women At the Helm, to give women ages 15 to 18, from urban and low-income communities of the Hudson Valley, three days aboard the sloop to experience sailing, environmental education and leadership training. A counterpart program, Young Men at the Helm, subsequently welcomed teenage boys.

Nearly a decade ago, reflecting Seeger’s commitment to inclusion, the Clearwater created an onboard environmental education and leadership training program for youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer and their allies. LGBTQ+ and Allies Youth at the Helm—dubbed “Queerwater”—will sail again this summer. 

Behind the history, achievements and enthusiasm for the Clearwater, however, are concerns about its future.

The organization lost the guiding presence of its founder with Seeger’s death in 2014. Then, temporarily, it lost the use of the sloop. Through the winter of 2015 and into the sailing season of 2016, the Clearwater was dry-docked for the final phase of a three-part restoration that, according to the New York Times, cost some $2 million. (A grant from New York State covered $343,000). Sailing programs continued during 2016 aboard the sloop’s sister boat, the Mystic Whaler (which continues to complement the Clearwater’s sailing schedule). But the Clearwater Festival, the primary source of funds for the organization, also was on hiatus in 2016.

“It’s been a struggle,” acknowledges Garthwaite. “We’re trying to do more, or the same, with less. It's money, it's membership support, and finding ways to be relevant to a younger audience.”

The Clearwater Festival is booked, in part, to draw younger fans, offering far more than—as Toshi Seeger told Tom Chapin—tall white guys with guitars. The Clearwater’s educational sails have inspired generations of environmentalists—and continue to do so.

As it sails on, the greatest relevance of the Clearwater may be its ability to draw attention to the most urgent issue of the age—climate change.

The organization defines the threat of climate change as an issue of environmental justice. “You should have access to a healthy environment no matter what your socioeconomic status or your ethnic or racial background,” says Garthwaite. Climate change will disproportionately affect the poor, according to studies by the United Nations and other organizations.

Offering a water-level perspective of the environment, the Clearwater is uniquely positioned to offer education about climate change to a younger generation.

However, the communities of the Hudson Valley may not support that goal. The issue of climate change has become politicized under the administration of Donald Trump who, during his presidential campaign, referred to climate change as “a con job” and a “myth.”  On Nov. 8, 2016, north of New York City, the majority of voters in six of the 11 Hudson Valley counties cast their ballots for Trump.

Seeger’s vision of the Clearwater reflected a less divisive time and belief in what a community, guided by optimism, could accomplish.

“Pete and Toshi together,” says Guthrie, “embraced a world of people who had the same hopes and dreams, a world where people would actually work together to create a better world for everybody. My father was a part of that. That's why Pete and my father were friends. I think I’ve been part of that. That's why Pete and I were friends. We shared the same hopes and dreams.”

As the students from Saugerties High School continue their rainy April sail aboard the Clearwater, everyone suddenly looks to the shore. Osprey are gracefully circling a nest atop an old crane on the river bank. “Is that crane still active?” someone asks. “Well,” answers a crew member lightly, “it’s active for the osprey.”

With the sloop in mid-channel in the Hudson, crew member and educator coordinator Krista Norris, standing beside a brass bell on the deck, calls for the students’ attention. She talks briefly of Pete Seeger and the importance of music to the history and mission of the Clearwater. And she explains this is a moment during every sail when all are asked to fall silent for a few moments. She rings the bell.

Passing powerboats disrupt the quiet, yet confirm how people now enjoy their cleaned-up river. The Clearwater leaves a near-silent wake. The wind pushes the sail. The rain continues to fall. Then comes a musical plinking, not of a banjo but a ukelele.

Tucked just inside a hatch, out of the rain, bearded, bespectacled, crew member Sam Nadell begins to sing. The song is not one of Seeger’s. It was popularized in the early 1960s by Bobby Darin. And in this moment, aboard the Clearwater, it is perfect.

Somewhere, beyond the sea

Somewhere, waiting for me

My lover stands on golden sands

And watches the ships ...that go sailing

Somewhere, beyond the sea

She's there, watching for me

If I could fly like birds on high

Then straight to her arms ... I'd go sailing


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