(Editor’s note: This essay was published after the death of Pete Seeger on Jan. 27, 2014 and is revised and republished to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth on May 3, 1919).
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 pulled 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.
I was a young teen on my first sail on the Clearwater, a 106-foot-long replica of the mid-19th century sloops that once commanded the waters of the Hudson, created through the vision of musician and activist Pete Seeger. Unquestionably one of the most important social and cultural figures of the 20th century, Seeger was born 100 years ago today (May 3).
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, ‘Pete, 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 want to clean up the river.”
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 sloop was launched from its shipyard in Maine 50 years ago this month, on May 17, 1969.
Today, to celebrate the centennial of Seeger’s birth, musicians and activists will gather at 3:30 p.m. dockside at the 79th Street Boat Basin in Manhattan, alongside the Clearwater, to celebrate his legacy. Singer Tom Chapin will join the Clearwater’s captain and crew, the organization’s executive director Greg Williams and its environmental action leader, Mana Jo Greene, among others. At 5 p.m., the Clearwater will raise its sail and set off once more on the Hudson River.
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 took my own children aboard, seeking to share the lessons that went far deeper than raising a sail, 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 15 and 16 at Croton Point Park on the shores of the Hudson River. Mavis Staples, Ani DiFranco, the Wailers and Railroad Earth lead this year’s lineup.
Seeger “has what they call Pete’s children,” said Jeff Place, curator and archivist of Smithsonian Folkways, in a May 1 interview with NPR about the new six-CD collection Pete Seeger: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection. “It’s a lot of movements he was part of that he didn’t really start, or had lent his hand to, like [the] Civil Rights Movement and things like that. But I think that the environmental thing on the river was really kind of Pete. He thought it was just [a] completely insane thought, that he was gonna build this this boat, a sloop, and sail up and down… playing music and stuff. But he did it and there’s still a festival up there every year and all these people who come, and there’s still people who are going up and down the river in that boat, even after Pete’s gone.”
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 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 his 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.”
After Seeger’s performance, I looked at my phone and saw a text message inviting me 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 connecting Farm Aid, his Clearwater sloop and countless other acts of engagement—which he helped inspire.
“It’s all these relatively little things,” he said, “which are going to save the human race.”