Pete Seeger: Folk Music's Granddad Plays It Green

By Harris, Scott | E Magazine, December 1994 | Go to article overview
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Pete Seeger: Folk Music's Granddad Plays It Green

Harris, Scott, E Magazine

Pete Seeger, one of the world's best-known folk-singers and social activists, comes from a long line of troublemakers. Civil War Seegers were abolitionists. Pete's music professor father became a socialist and a World War I conscientious objector, giving up his tenured position to become a travelling musician and composer of protest songs.

Seeger picked up the banjo while attending a Connecticut prep school. Later, after flunking out of Harvard, becoming radicalized, and making an aborted stab at journalism, Seeger committed himself to social change through folk music, forming the Almanac Singers (featuring Woody Guthrie) in 1941. But it was The Weavers, a group that came together just as Seeger was thinking of giving up performing, that made him a star through hits like "If I Had a Hammer" and "Goodnight Irene." Ironically. The Weavers' recordings received their greatest public acceptance during the time Seeger himself was under attack by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the early 50s. The pressure finally forced the group to disband in 1952.

Seeger has been a solo artist ever since, performing in Carnegie Hall and tiny coffeehouses from Maine to California. Seeger, who built his own log cabin in Beacon, New York in 1950 (and lived there for more than 30 years), has always been an environmentalist. An avid sailor upset by the Hudson River's oil-slicked surface, he first envisioned the boat that became "The Clearwater" in 1968. Seeger himself helped build the sloop, a replica of 19th-century Hudson riverboats, in a Maine shipyard. During its first season on the river, crewed by an odd mix of musicians and sailors, it earned $27,000 in cleanup funds.

The Clearwater grew from there, with an annual festival and real progress in reducing Hudson sewer contamination and industrial pollution. When widespread PCB contamination of the river by General Electric was discovered in 1975, Seeger was furious. "The people of America must realize we've got to organize a defense against these chemical companies," he declared.

E interviewed Seeger last spring at the annual People's Music Network Retreat in Pine Bush, New York. It was the 25th anniversary of the Clearwater's maiden voyage.

E: Could you discuss the initial goals of the Clearwater project?

SEEGER: It started about 30 years ago. I had a little plastic bathtub of a boat and I was sailing on the Hudson and I looked down at the water and saw that it was like a toilet bowl. Every time you flushed a toilet from New York to Albany, it went right into the river. I realized the truth in what John Kenneth Gailbraith said: Private affluence, public squalor. It's all through our country.

I had a friend who said that there used to be sailboats on the river with booms 70 feet long. I didn't believe him, but he gave me an old book written in 1908 by two old gentlemen about these huge sailboats that had hauled cargo on the Hudson before steam ships. They were big, shallow draft single-masted sloops of Dutch design. River boats, not ocean boats, built in New York City in the 19th century.

So I wrote a letter to my friend and suggested we build a replica of one of the boats. Four months later, I met him on the railroad station platform and he asked me when we were going to build the boat. I had forgotten all about it, but he said he had passed my letter up and down the commuter train and there were a couple dozen people who wanted to get started. I said, if there are enough nuts, we might do it.

Three years later this huge sailboat was built. We raised money in dollars and dimes and, in the end, a few millionaires gave us some money, including some members of the Rockefeller family. But it was mainly musicians who raised the money--not only me, but a lot of others. Don McLean, who wrote "American Pie," was on our first crew. Gordon Bok was the best sailor aside from the captain, and he became the first mate in our first crew.

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