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Hudson Valley Press

January 29th, 2014

Pete Seeger, Activist and Folk Musician, Dead at 94

Folk Singer Pete Seeger, seen here at “Beacon Rocks” on May 18, 2013, passed away on Monday, January 27th at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital surrounded by family. Hudson Valley Press/CHUCK STEWART, JR.
What can a song do? What can a sailboat do? Some would say music exists just to soothe or distract people from their troubles. Some say sailboats are just rich men’s toys. Wrong, wrong. In the summer of 1969 they helped to start cleaning up a river.  – from the book, Pete Seeger, in His Own Words

BEACON – Pete Seeger, legendary folk singer-songwriter and activist, founder of the modern environmental and Hudson River Sloop Clearwater founder, passed away on January 27, at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City surrounded by his family. Seeger, whose name is synonymous with cause music and a major figure in American Folk music, was age 94. Seeger had been in excellent health for the majority of his life and performed concerts and at gatherings up until recently.

 Seeger is recently preceded in death by his wife of 69 years, Toshi Alina Ota, who passed in July of 2013 at the age of 91. Seeger and his wife, Toshi met at a square dance in 1939 in New York City and were married in 1943. Together with Toshi, Seeger founded Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc., and the Great Hudson River Revival, the annual music and environmental festival that takes place at Croton Point Park in Croton, NY.

 Fondly referred to as simply “Pete” by friends and associates, Seeger planted the seed that started Hudson River Sloop Clearwater when he and a few friends, decided to “build a boat to save the river” with the belief that a majestic replica of the sloops that sailed the Hudson in the 18th and 19th centuries would bring people to the river where they could experience its beauty and be moved to preserve it.

 Seeger was able to inspire people to make the dream a reality; the keel was laid in October 1968 and christened with Hudson River water. The 106-foot sloop Clearwater was launched on May 17, 1969 at Harvey Gamage Shipyard in South Bristol, Maine, and the inaugural sail was to South Street Seaport in New York City, and then on to her permanent home on the Hudson River. Today, the sloop sails the Hudson River from New York City to Albany as a “Sailing Classroom”, laboratory, musical stage, and forum. Since her launch, over half a million people have been introduced to the Hudson River estuary. Many Hudson Valley residents can share stories of the days when they were in elementary school and their voyage on the sloop Clearwater. 

Seeger and Hudson River Sloop Clearwater played an important role in the passage of laws to clean up the nation’s waters. In 1972 Seeger and the Clearwater crew sailed the sloop to Washington, DC while Congress was debating the Clean Water Act. Seeger personally delivered a petition with hundreds of thousands of signatures to Congress and then proceeded to hold a spontaneous concert in the halls of Congress. A few weeks later the Federal Water Pollution Control Act was passed in 1972 over then President Richard Nixon’s veto.

Because of the passage of the Clean Water Act, our nation’s waters are far cleaner today than when the law was passed and are now more fishable, swimmable and drinkable.

The Clean Water Act has protected wetlands, so critical to helping filter pollutants and limit flooding and is a landmark piece of legislation for our nation. Seeger was an important voice among many who demanded government action to cleaning up our nation’s water. For over forty five years, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater has continued this mission and has long been a force for environmental clean-up and education for the Hudson River and in New York.

 Over the years, Seeger has been an outspoken activist in promoting his vision for civil rights, social justice, peace and disarmament, and awareness for our environment. Through the “Power of Song” and honoring the folksingers’ obligation to spread the word and involve the audience, Seeger successfully motivated people to join in and sing along. His influence spans from the 1940s to the present day, with his distinctive voice delivering his message through inspired storytelling and his signature instrument, the Longneck Banjo. In 1997 he won a Grammy for best traditional folk album titled, “Pete.”

Seeger has personified folk music through the songs he has written, and the songs he has discovered and shared, always encouraging audiences to join in and participate in the performance.
In January, 2009, Seeger joined Bruce Springsteen, grandson Tao Rodríguez-Seeger, and the crowd in singing the Woody Guthrie song “This Land Is Your Land” during the finale of Barack Obama’s Inaugural concert in Washington, DC. In May of 2009, The Clearwater Concert, featuring dozens of musicians at Madison Square Garden was held to celebrate Seeger’s 90th birthday. The event was later televised on PBS and proceeds from the event went to benefit Hudson River Sloop Clearwater.

More recent performances include the August 2013 interview with Democracy Now! where Seeger sang, “I Come and Stand at Every Door” in honor of the 68th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. In September, 2013, Seeger performed during Farm Aid benefit at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, NY and was joined by Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews, to sing, “This Land is Your Land.”

 Seeger is regarded as an iconic American figure, and a pivotal person of the 1960s American folk music revival, playing a banjo bearing the words, “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender.” Through his music, he reached multiple generations and strongly believed that if you can inspire people with music, you can change the world from the bottom up with grassroots activism. His example has become the template for the generations in speaking out about the state of affairs in the world and expressing them.

Hudson River Sloop Clearwater also works to bring justice to the river, its environment, and to the people living along it. General Electric’s dredging to clean up 30 years of deposited PCB’s from the river is a direct result of Clearwater activism.

Ultimately, the 106-foot-long sailboat, Clearwater, will sail on as a symbol of Pete Seeger’s great legacy. It was built to carry out science-based environmental education aboard a sailing ship and the model for other educational sail programs around the world today.

The sloop Clearwater has become recognized for its role in the environmental movement, and thanks to Pete Seeger, the over 12,000 school kids who sail each year will never see the river in the same way that they did before their voyage. Perhaps more importantly, they will be moved to protect the river every time they look at it.
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