(Stories) Pete Seeger & the Hudson River Sloop

For Pete Seeger, music and political protest have always gone hand in hand. The folk singer and activist has worked tirelessly for different causes throughout his career. He has sung in labour marches, protested the war in Vietnam, and performed at civil rights events, always with banjo in hand. Seeger loved to bring people together, and always wanted the audience to sing with him and struggle with him to make a more just world. There could be no sweeter sound for Seeger than thousands of people harmonizing to the lyrics: “Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, We shall overcome, some day.”

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Seeger was a constant thorn in the side of the establishment, and he was labeled a communist and brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. He was sentenced to a year in jail for his evasive answers, since he refused to give details about where he had performed, or incriminate anyone he had associated with. Seeger appealed the case successfully and managed to avoid jail time, but he was blacklisted and banned from the airwaves, many public performance venues and college campuses until the late 1960s. The incident was a reminder of how threatening words and songs can be to those in power, and how far they will go to prevent oppositional viewpoints from gaining momentum.

In the late 1960s, Seeger began to focus his efforts on the burgeoning environmental movement in the United States. This came from reassessing his place in the world, and thinking about the issues that affected him personally. Seeger had always been interested in the outdoors, and had built his own house on a hilltop in Beacon, New York, where he and his wife, Toshi Seeger, still live. All Pete had to do was step out into his backyard and stare into the polluted sludge that was the Hudson River, and he found a cause. At the turn of the 20th century the river was much clearer. One could swim without worrying about swallowing raw sewage, and eat fish from the river without worrying about mercury poisoning. Decades of PCB contamination from General Electric and other companies in the region had poisoned the river, as had pesticide use, heavy metals, and dioxins. It got to the point where most people in New York thought it was beyond saving; a toxic chemical dumping ground instead of a river.

Luckily, Seeger was used to people telling him it was pointless to try to change things. He dreamed up an idea that seemed harebrained to many of his friends: he would build a replica of a Dutch sailing sloop – a ship that was common to the Hudson in the 18th and 19th centuries. Perhaps, he thought, something majestic and unexpected would bring people to the river, and would inspire them to help save it. It was around this time that Seeger wrote My Dirty Stream (The Hudson River Song):

Sailing down my dirty stream
Still I love it and I’ll keep the dream
That some day, though maybe not this year
My Hudson River will once again run clear.

With the support of friends and environmentalists from the region, the Clearwater sloop was built and launched in 1969. It was 106 feet long, with a wood frame and massive 3,000 square-foot sail. It looked like it was from another era. The ship became a site for environmental advocacy and public education about the Hudson River. Since it first set sail, hundreds of thousands of people have boarded the Clearwater to learn about the fragile ecosystem surrounding the Hudson.

Seeger was a constant thorn in the side of the establishment, and he was labeled a communist and brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955.

Seeger’s initial idea gave way to Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc., a nonprofit organization run by environmentalists, educators, and a sailing crew. The group organizes sailing trips onboard the Clearwater geared towards a variety of different audiences. It hosts schools, community outreach programs, corporate groups and aspiring environmentalists. Its main program is the “Sailing Classroom,” which was designed for school groups. A typical outing might involve kids being introduced to the history of the Hudson River, the Clearwater sloop, and the modern environmental movement. Each sailing trip can be designed around a theme, including history, anthropology, geography, biology, art, music and poetry. Different stations are set up on the boat by volunteers, and students have the chance to visit five of them during a three hour sail. At one station, students get hands-on experience learning about fish of the Hudson River. At another, students learn how to monitor the quality of the river water, and perform simple tests to measure salinity, dissolved oxygen, pH and turbidity. An art station encourages students to learn about painters of the Hudson River school, and make their own artworks onboard that are inspired by the river. The idea behind the stations is to get students actively involved in learning about the Hudson. Through creative ways of teaching, the Clearwater continues to spread knowledge and awareness about cleanup efforts. Their work over the past several decades is a reminder that when people work together, small actions add up and can lead to real, measurable changes.

Since it first set sail, the Clearwater has played a major role in environmental advocacy in New York, and has helped to put pressure on governments to change laws. The Clean Water Act was passed by the the federal government in 1972, three years after the Clearwater set sail. PCBs were banned in 1977, and GE was forced to spend millions of dollars to dredge up PCB-contaminated sludge from the Hudson. The river is slowing getting cleaner, and mercury levels in fish have decreased considerably. The Clearwater continues to spread awareness about the river and the role that humans play in shaping the ecosystem around them. The clean up act continues, and the sloop that Pete Seeger dreamed into being has been a big part of the movement. The ship was meant to pique curiosity and inspire action. Like one of Seeger’s songs, it started with one voice, and then grew into a chorus of folks united in their desire for change:

Come along with me
Upon this broad old river.
We will see what we can do.
For when we work together
In all kinds of weather
There’s no telling what the power of the people and the river can do.
(Broad Old River by Pete Seeger, Dan Einbender, Travis Jeffrey, Al Nejmeh, and Steve Stanne)

Sources:

  • Dunaway, David King. How Can I Keep from Singing? The Ballad of Pete Seeger. New  York: Villard, 2008.

Songs:

  • “Broad Old River,” on the album Fast Folk Musical Magazine (Vol. 1, No. 2), released by Folkways Records in 1984.
  • “My Dirty Stream (The Hudson River Song),” on the album God Bless the Grass, released by Folkways Records in 1982.
  • “We Shall Overcome Someday,” on the album We Shall Overcome, released by Columbia Records in 1963.

Talking Water Project|Noni Brynjolson (2013)

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