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Pete Seeger: folk music's granddad plays it green.

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. That first crew had a reunion last June at our annual Hudson River Revival festival on the banks of the Hudson in Valhalla, New York.

It's a great festival, a big community event with all kinds of stories, music, food and games. You can spend the day learning how to juggle or tell stories. If you like to sing in a chorus, we have a place just for singing. And you also can learn about the battle to clean up the Hudson, because it's still going on.

We've only half cleaned it up. We've gotten rid of the toilet waste, but the problem now is chemicals that come from agricultural pesticides, herbicides, industry, and ordinary people dumping their crankcase oil on the ground. Sooner or later it gets into the local stream and eventually into the river.

There's a big job of education to do. The boat takes about 10,000 to 15,000 school kids out every year, about 50 at a time for a three- or four-hour induction to sailing and biology. They get to look through a microscope and wonder what all the wiggly things are. They learn that plankton is food for the fish as grass is food for cattle. Kids help to steer the boat and raise the huge sail. We're very proud that after 25 years we've made some progress.

Your wife Toshi has long been a director of the Revival.

This was her last year working on it. Toshi and I are in our 70s now and she is going to let some younger people run it. She is on a committee of 19 volunteers who work all year planning this festival. It's just like politics--you want to reach everybody, but you have to put together a coalition. History moves forward that way. There's a lot still to be done. Our next job is to see that the river banks are not taken over by the rich: We want the shores to be accessible to everybody. I guess there'll be compromises.

We need to straighten up and learn a few things, like ancient lessons taught us thousands of years ago. But people still don't listen to them or act on them.

It doesn't take a big organization. It just takes a few people who put their heads together and say, "Let's do something." It might be getting the kids involved in cleaning up the mess that other people have left. How can we keep folks from dropping litter and glass all over the place? It's an education job and kids have got to lead it. Consider this: Every society has the task of facing an on-rushing horde of barbarians, their own children.

How often do you sail on the Clearwater?

Once a year I set foot on the boat to say hello to the captain, but most of the time, from April to November, the boat is sailing up and down the Hudson, Long Island Sound and New York Bay. From November through March it spends time in a little town called Saugerties, New York. It is a little mill town up near Albany. Every weekend volunteers come up and they sand and do all sorts of labor-intensive jobs so that the boat can sail the next season.

What topics have cropped up at the festival in the last couple of years?

People often ask me, "What is the most important thing to work on?" I like the phrase, "think globally, act locally." How can you save the world when you can't even save the corner of it where you live? Don't travel to some glamorous place far off and think you're going to solve the world's problems there. Solve them right where you are; don't run away from them.

We've got a pollution crisis, everybody knows that. We've got chemists who are having a lot of fun discovering new chemicals and not paying any attention to which ones might be dangerous. So now most of us are walking around with small amounts of dioxin in our bodies. We breathe it, drink it, eat it in our food. And the cancer rate is steadily going up, up, up! When somebody close to you dies, you wonder what you could have done to stop it. What you can do is start reading right now. Read about the environmental crisis and realize that it's going to kill you and your children if you don't solve it.

Can you tell us how the People's Music Network began?

Every year, about 150 or 200 people gather for a weekend of song swapping at Camp Willow Tree in Pine Bush, New York. They learn how to use music in the school, in the churches, in unions--singing in the streets, singing with a family, singing in choruses, singing different kinds of music. They sing gospel music, blues, latin music, and use different kinds of instruments. It's a very informal organization, I compare it to a convention of chefs, all sampling each other's recipes. It's not a festival, so don't come to hear your favorite songs sung by your favorite singer. More often than not, people are testing out their new songs, whether they are professional musicians or amateur musicians.

Are the singers at this event taking to head the philosophy of thinking globally, acting locally? Are they singing about incinerators, landfills, tax problems, things like that?

Some of them are, yes. I was singing about the expansion of a nuclear power plant in Westchester County, New York a few years ago. I sang: "We shall not, we shall not be moved," and then, "One of these nights about 12 o'clock/This old world will reel and rock/Pharoah's army got drownded/Oh, Mary don't you weep." These old spirituals are like a basketball backboard in my mind. They bounce back new ideas as life bounces new meaning against them. You don't need a lot of words often. But of course there's a time for words and a time for no words.

How important is music to democracy and social change?

You can't prove a damn thing. Obviously, if I didn't think it was important I wouldn't still be writing and singing songs.

Since the decline of the Soviet Union, people have proclaimed the end of history, the end of human progress and the triumph of capitalism. What's your feeling about this new world order?

At age 75, I'm no longer as optimistic as I used to be. I felt certain--and perhaps if Franklin Roosevelt had stayed president it would have happened--that working people of East and West could find ways of working with each other, and instead of producing guns and bombs, we could produce education for the whole world. Well, I was wrong. Very wrong. It may be that there will be no human race, because every year scientists make it easier and easier for us to destroy ourselves. Now they're inventing new bacteria. Think what Hitler would have done with a bacteria that could wipe out every dark-skinned person in the world.

I do think we have a chance, however, because people have realized that no one organization can do it alone. It's going to take millions of little organizations all working in more or less the same direction.

We've got to learn to laugh at our differences. Little by little, we'll all learn a few universal truths and, who knows, we might be surprised yet. I meet people who are completely pessimistic, like Kurt Vonnegut, who writes one book after another about the end of the world and the human race. I said to him, "Did you predict that Nixon would leave office the way he did?" He said "No." I said, "Did you predict the Pentagon would have to leave Vietnam the way it did?" He said "No." "Did you predict the Berlin Wall would come down so peacefully?" He still answered "No." "Well," I said, "if you could not predict those three things then how can you be positive in predicting the end of the world?"

You've had a long career and have written some world-famous songs. You were also blacklisted in the 50s for your political beliefs. Would do it all over again the way you did?

I made an awful lot of mistakes, but by and large I would do the same things. Some people's lives were ruined by the blacklisting, but I just kept sailing through it. I sang in schools and colleges and I sang whatever I thought was appropriate. I hate the word "career" because it implies one is searching after fame and fortune--two of the silliest things to want. I'm about the luckiest musician I know of. I'm still singing here and there, even though I don't have much voice left, and my grandson sings with me.

Contact: Clearwater Inc., 112 Market Street, Poughkeepsie, NY 12601/(914) 454-7673.

SCOTT HARRIS is public affairs director at WPKN-FM in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
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Author:Harris, Scott
Article Type:Interview
Date:Dec 1, 1994
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