Remembering Pete Seeger and His Fight to Restore the Hudson River


Of all the causes Pete Seeger passionately supported throughout his life, one of the closest to his heart was the restoration of the Hudson River.

The 94-year-old legendary singer, widely known as "the father of American folk music," passed away on Jan. 27, leaving behind a legacy of political and environmental activism. It was this latter influence that made Seeger, a longtime resident of Beacon, N.Y., create his Hudson River Sloop Clearwater organization in 1969. The purpose was to engage residents along the river and raise awareness of the harmful PCB contamination that had taken hold as a result of manufacturing by the water's edge. To better attract attention, the organization built a 19th century cargo sloop.

"The idea was to find a beautiful old boat — not just any craft, but an old cargo sloop like the ones that sailed the Hudson in fleets of 400 or more a century ago — and take it up and down the river, stopping at every town along the way," he told Mother Jones back in 1982. "We figured that in order to keep the Hudson from becoming a permanent sewer, the local people would have to learn to love the river again, to come down to the water's edge and look at it closely and — in effect — say, 'Gee, this river is a mess. We ought to get together and do something about it.'"

Clearwater sloop on the Hudson River

The 106-foot Clearwater sloop sailing past Grant's tomb and Riverside Church in Manhattan.

As a result of Seeger's passionate energy, Clearwater grew into one of the most prominent environmental organizations in the country, influencing the passage of several key laws such as the Clear Water Act of 1972. As part of its annual fundraiser, the group also created America's largest and oldest (spanning more than three decades) music festivals, the Great Hudson River Revival. Seeger, never one to let his fame get in the way of a good time, could often be seen jamming with local residents during the festival. In 2011, he won a Grammy Award for Best Musical Album for Children for "Tomorrow's Children," a CD of environmental tunes created with former students from J.V. Forrestal Elementary School in Beacon.

While he was never bullish on humanity's chances of surviving the next several centuries, he was not completely without hope.

"Maybe some of us won't live through the trying times to come, but let's not give up hope that life on earth will survive," he said. "Those who do make it, however, won't likely be a few fearful individuals who've moved off alone to the Rocky Mountains with their supplies. No, the people who survive are probably going to be those who know how to grow their own food, how to build their own houses, and how to share that information with their neighbors. I'm convinced that survival in the future will depend upon learning how to share.

"Many musicians I know follow the philosophy that says, 'Eat, drink, and be merry ... for tomorrow we die.' And it's a perfectly valid philosophy, one that's held by millions of people. But I say, 'Share the eats, share the drinks, be of good cheer, and if we work together, maybe tomorrow we won't die quite so quickly.'"

Check out Pete jamming below with some local musicians while on his Clearwater Sloop in 2010.

Bonus track: Seeger's calls for justice and hope went far beyond his beloved Hudson River. Take a few minutes to watch this "Forever Young" video. You'll feel better about the future: