Aboard Pete Seeger's Clearwater, Words to Fight Bias and Hate

Joe Kohen/WireImage
Pete Seeger performs during the 2009 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize special outdoor tribute at Hunts Point Riverside Park on Sept. 3, 2009 in New York City. 

An autumn morning sail on the Hudson River might seem an unlikely place to hear a message to counter the news of violence and division that has commanded the nation’s attention.

But for high school students aboard the Hudson River sloop Clearwater Tuesday, sailing some 90 miles north of New York City, that message was part of their trip aboard the 106-foot-long wooden boat which was launched five decades ago by the late folk music pioneer Pete Seeger.

Seeger conceived of the Clearwater to inspire people to clean up the Hudson and the students from Hudson Valley Pathways Academy in Ulster Park, N.Y. spent much of their morning learning about the river's vitality from the Clearwater’s crew on this, the final sail of the sloop’s season.

But reflecting Seeger’s lifelong mission and music, the sloop also is the centerpiece of an organization devoted to inclusion and social justice. The Clearwater marks its 50th anniversary next year.

Clearwater Captain Aleythea Dolstad did not speak of the killing of 11 members of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh three days earlier. They did not have to. The day’s news carried reports of those sitting shiva for the dead and the first services for those murdered by a gunman in an act of hate and bias.

“I want you to imagine a banjo,” said Dolstad, standing with the students as their trip began. “Not just any banjo. I want you to imagine Pete Seeger’s banjo. On the banjo were written the words: 'This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.’

“And that’s really the idea that this organization was started with,” said Dolstad, “and something we really want to carry with us into the future.

“There are demonstrations of hate in this world that are pretty obvious and clear,” Dolstad said. “But there are things that each one of us carry within ourselves without even knowing about it, some prejudice or bias.

“So what I would like everybody to do is try to find those things, surround them and dissolve them. I hope we can carry that out into the world, and spread that, and work towards a world that’s a better place for everybody.”

Throughout his life and career, Seeger had strong affinity for Jewish culture. When he belonged to the Weavers in the 1950s, that quartet recorded an English-language version of the celebratory Hebrew song "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena" which went to No. 2 on Billboard’s Best-Selling Pop Singles chart in 1950. In the 1960s, on the television show Rainbow Quest, Seeger sang the hymn "Hinei Ma Tov" with Jewish actor, singer and activist Theodore Bikel and Palestinian poet Rashid Hussein.

And for one of his best-loved songs, Seeger drew inspiration from the Tanakh, or the Hebrew Bible, and Chapter 3 of the Book of Ecclesiastes. The lyrics of "Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season),” were written by Seeger in the late 1950s but, in an era of turmoil, they remain timeless.

To everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)

There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)

And a time for every purpose, under heaven

A time to gain, a time to lose

A time to rend, a time to sew

A time to love, a time to hate

A time for peace, I swear it's not too late