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40th Clearwater Festival Honors Pete Seeger's Legacy With Songs of Joy and Defiance

Maura and Pete Kennedy of the Kennedys and Tom Chapin
Thom Duffy

Maura and Pete Kennedy of the Kennedys and Tom Chapin (L-R) sing aboard the Hudson River sloop Clearwater on the eve of the 2018 Clearwater Festival in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.

The Mavericks, Jeff Tweedy, Ani DiFranco and more played the Clearwater's Great Hudson River Revival, billed as the country’s oldest and largest musical and environmental festival.

“This is our first time at this awesome festival,” said Michael Trotter onstage Saturday (June 16) beside his wife, Tonya Trotter, at the 40th annual Clearwater Festival in Croton Point Park on the Hudson River. “We’re going to dedicate our performance to the spirit of Pete and Toshi Seeger.”

And with that, the husband-wife duo known as the War and Treaty blew the proverbial roof off the open-air festival site with their powerful gospel-blues set.

The War and Treaty were not only one of the standout, breakout performers at the Clearwater Festival; they exemplified the rich musical stew that has long fed fans of this event -- now in its 40th year -- which is staged each year 40 miles north of New York City as a benefit for the Hudson River sloop Clearwater, founded by Pete Seeger.

Saturday night headliner Ani DiFranco has accurately referred to this gathering, formally known as the Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival, as a “folk festival, quote unquote,” and the qualification is apt. Not only does the Clearwater Festival rightly bill itself as the country’s oldest and largest musical and environmental festival, it is one of the most musically inclusive, embracing every genre.

Certainly, the Clearwater Festival honors the life and legacy of Seeger as a folk music icon, but it also recognizes the singer, songwriter and activist as a pioneer of world music, before anyone coined that term.

And the legacy of Seeger’s social, political and environmental work remains strong throughout the event, not only in booths dedicated to activist organizations, but in frequent onstage comments from the performers.

“What a beautiful day!” folk singer Tom Paxton declared as the festival opened Saturday. “President Trump just took credit for it.”

Veteran artists on the festival bill including Paxton, David Amram, Josh White Jr. and Tom Chapin offered a link to folk music’s rich past. The festival offered older singers singing even older songs; White Jr. performed “Bourgeois Blues” during a tribute to the immensely influential Leadbelly. It offered older artists singing new works, as Tom Chapin debuted a fresh song about the Clearwater. Finally, it offered younger artists interpreting classics: the Canadian duo Choir! Choir! Choir lead an often hilarious but gorgeous Sunday morning crowd sing-a-long on Seeger’s "Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)”.

"Folk songs survive because they speak to the deepest part of us,” Rhiannon Giddens told the crowd.  

But just as the Clearwater sloop aims to educate the next generation of environmentalists, the Clearwater Festival uniquely showcases some of most notable young artists on the rise, amid multiple generations of performers across cultures.

The family-friendly festival -- where many of the performers play separate sets in a kids tent and in a small-capacity workshop tent -- manages to be both high-energy and low-key. And no other festival offers midday sailing breaks on one of the nation’s greatest rivers, aboard two vessels, the sloop Clearwater and its sister boat, the Mystic Whaler.

In her headlining set Saturday, DiFranco Saturday led the audience through her chorus on a thrilling version of “Binary,” the title track from her latest album, released in 2017. As the Sunday headliners, the Mavericks proved once again they are simply the best Cuban, Tex-Mex, rockabilly, power-pop party band in the land.

Among highlights of the weekend: the winsome melodic melancholia of Jeff Tweedy, frontman of Wilco, playing a solo acoustic set; the soulful vocals and burning fiddle and banjo of Giddens; the marvelously manic music of Langhorne Slim; the acoustic-guitar-and-electronica soundscapes of Beth Orton; the breathtaking sisterly harmonies of the Nields; the horn-fired wackiness of They Might Be Giants; the classic-yet-fresh bluegrass of Hot Rize; the irresistable Cajun beat of Beausoleil; the chugging blues of Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore; the Venezuela rhythms and soul of Betsayda Machado and much more.

Like any such gathering, the Clearwater Festival offered a musical escape. But as Seeger would have wanted, its artists frequently reminded audiences of issues demanding their attention and engagement. 

On this Father’s Day weekend, several performers joined the national outcry against the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from parents illegally crossing the southern border of the United States, many seeking asylum from violence in their homeland.

During a tribute to the songs of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen by Willie Nile, The Nields and The Kennedys, Maura Kennedy took lead vocals on a song Dylan recorded in 1964 and Springsteen covered in 1988.

“For the refugees on the unarmed road of flight,” they sang, “We gazed upon the Chimes of Freedom flashing.”

During his Sunday afternoon set, Tom Paxton put it more bluntly. “If the poor don’t matter,” he sang, “neither do I.”

Here is a playlist of songs by selected artists on the bill of the 40th anniversary Clearwater Festival.


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