Pete Seeger, Hudson River Activist and Folk Musician, Dead at 94

Dona Crawford autunm_040

Photo Dona Crawford

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

Hudson River Sloop Clearwater Mourns the Passing of Its Inspiring Founder

BEACON, NY – 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 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 Ohta Seeger, 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.

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. The organization is also active in the battle to pass moratoriums on hydrofracking in the region and outspoken on the many safety issues associated with the problematic Indian Point nuclear power plant in Buchanan, NY.

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.

 Media Contact: Julia Church, Communications, Commun@Clearwater.org, 845-265-8080, x7112

About Hudson River Sloop Clearwater
Inspiring, educating  and activating millions of people for over 45 years, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater has been at the forefront of the environmental movement as champion of the Hudson River, working to pass landmark legislation like the Clean Water Act, providing innovative educational programs, environmental advocacy, and musical celebrations, including the renowned annual Clearwater Festival. The organization was founded by music legend and environmental activist Pete Seeger in 1966. The iconic sloop Clearwater was launched in 1969 and is a majestic replica of the sloops that sailed the Hudson in the 18th and 19th centuries. To date, more than half a million people have experienced their first real look at an estuary’s ecosystem aboard the vessel.  The organization’s strong connection to youth, environmental education, and its agenda to create the next generation of environmental leaders are all part of building and strengthening a Green Cities Initiative for a green economy and a more inclusive and diverse environmental movement. Utilizing the greatest natural resource in the region, the Hudson River, Clearwater has become the grassroots model for producing positive changes to protect our planet. For more information, visit www.clearwater.org. Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc. is a 501(c) 3 tax-exempt nonprofit, member-supported corporation whose mission is to preserve and protect the Hudson River, its tributaries and related bodies of water.
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16 Responses to Pete Seeger, Hudson River Activist and Folk Musician, Dead at 94

  1. Sally Cutler says:

    I crewed on the Clearwater in the summer of 1973 and played music with Pete at a Staten Island festival during that trip . Pete was an inspiration to all of us folk musicians and always will be.

    Sally Cutler, Kazoo and Autoharp
    The Cranberry Lake Jug Band

  2. Helen Andrews says:

    I wept at the news of Pete’s passing but am so grateful for his legacy. In 1971 my son, Morgan FitzPatrick Andrews, was born on Earth Day in Poughkeepsie NY. I took him to the Clearwater Sloop Festival in Poughkeepsie when he was a baby and have a DVD (transferred from the old Super 8 reel) of Pete and Richie Havens singing on stage and I am singing along (although the film is silent) to “Sailing Up My Dirty Stream” with Morgan in my arms. At the same Festival, Pete approached us and asked my (then) husband if he would help by hammering in some tent pegs. To this day he is proud to say, “The man who wrote ‘If I had a hammer’ gave me his hammer to use!”
    Pete’s songs were among the first sung to my son in his crib. His ideals, along with those of Woody Gurthrie, helped to inspire my son to lead a life of activism and social reform.

    Thank you, Pete – long may your songs live in the world.

  3. Gerry Hawkins says:

    What a great man. We will never see his like again. Whether singing to thousands at Madison Square Garden or to a small group in a side tent at the Festival, he was the same honest, generous human being. We’ll miss him.

  4. Pete, thank you for all you have done. You will be missed, but you will live on by the work you have done, and the music that we will sing.

    Love you:

    Jane and Herb

  5. Bob Mula says:

    Sorry to hear of the passing of a great man and mentor of mine. I remember meeting Pete for the first time during the 1960’s at a River Festival in New Brunswick, NJ. Pete did allowed me as a young child to climb upon to his sloop and explore. I remember asking lots of questions and Pete smiling as he was answering me back. Not realizing that someday later as time passed that I would become the VP to the Monmouth County Friends of Clearwater sloop club , (that it was called back then). Also that same sloop that I was on as a child , I would be a crew member with my son Jason Mula for a week sailing along the Hudson. We were docked at the boat basin, NYC.
    I met Pete and we spoke many of times during the Sandy Hook festivals that he always came out to sing at and support.
    Back in September 14, 1991 He did preform in the City of New Brunswick, NJ and I was introduced to Pete and Toshi in the back room before the show. He was always delightful to meet someone new and offer an interesting conversation. I did share with Pete the first time we met back in the 1960’s. It was after this meeting that I did get more involved with Clearwater, because of being very touched by Pete’s words.
    This great man do so much for mankind and the environment through music and actions.
    RIP my friend.
    Bob Mula/ Melbourne, Florida

  6. Neil Gordon says:

    “Shipmate” is a word only well understood by those who have been one. Thank you, Pete, for being a shipmate to so many of us.

  7. Randy Wenzowitz says:

    Rest I peace Pete. Will miss you . Love you

  8. seth rick says:

    I will so miss Pete and Toshi. pete and my grandparents go back to even before the robeson concerts in peekskill, that started at my grandparents farm in 1948. which was a benefit for the Henry wallace progressive party , organized by the Harlem chapter of the civil rights congress. Which many will remember as the attack on Robeson and his supporters.

    I have wonderful childhood memories of the picnics we all attended in garrison to raise the funds for the construction of the beautiful clearwater, and my brother Caleb and I were members before she was built. We both have so many warm memories from those early days sailing on the Hudson and at the festivals.

    When the sloop first came to Cold spring where I grew up, some of local losers untied her at night and threw rocks at the joyous sloop.

    Many years later when they rebuilt the( dock )at cold spring, which wasn’t a dock because there was no place to tie up, I saw pete getting off the train from Ny and said to pete ” they probably did so the clearwater can’t dock here ” and his response was ” it’s ok we’ll tie to a root if we have to ”
    will miss him and his glowing peaceful energy. Much love and respect for his family and many friends all over the globe. I miss the Hudson and the clearwater people.
    i’m going to get my canoe out on the humboldt bay here in Ca and think about all that those years on the hudson.
    something pete use to say to me was “keep it going” and to all those sloop folks and others, please do. Best to you all, much respect and love seth rick

  9. T Mackin says:

    “Yesterday, Monday January 27 2014, Pete Seeger passed away at the age of 94, close to seven months after Toshi. No doubt she was waiting, and he has already joined her. How much they gave to us all who were around in their time ! I’ve never been to the Hudson River, but have known it as an important connection, because it leads north to a sacred symbolic place for me in Canada, for me not only as a Canadian but also as one among so many who dearly love the greenness of our grand planet — which the ongoing Clearwater project so well honours. That place in Canada to me is sacred because it symbolizes the sanctity of true marriage, as memorably epitomized by the Seegers … as our Earth is tied intimately to the Cosmos. Moreover, Toshi was born on July 1st, Canada’s birthday. And only one day separates Pete’s birthday from my mother’s. And she and Pete were wed on July 20th, the birth day of my very close and significant other of the past. Toshi left us on July 9th, the birth day of the one great love of mine. With all these ties of love and affection, then, it was clearly not allowed by the Great Power that I would not serendipitously happen on this site and miss the chance to wish Toshi and Pete everlasting bliss on their continuing journey together.”

  10. Sahaphap says:

    Truly sad news about Pete Seeger, one of the true greats. Given that he was 94, it’s not unexpected, but I’d still rather hoped he was secretly immortal. R.I.P. Pete Seeger.

  11. Ron Elton says:

    From Ron Elton, Less than a minute ago from Noon 2014Jan 28 to the Associated Press:

    We can see that Pete did ‘get up and go’ sailing up and down a cleaner golden river, his one grain of sand is our one grain of sand to over-come with a turn , turn , turn. I shall keep on singing, while he is with Toshi and I will go on inch by inch with him in my memory that is alive! May the earthly and universal spirits bless him in the beyond.–Elton.

    For me to brief is like sipping through a straw, instead of jumping into miles of deep water. as far as the legacy that Pete had ventured to preserve. The work is not over and it is our responsibility to maintain that ‘Ship’, for the benefit of the region, the planet, ourselves. While we work efficiently with kindness; we can be joyous to sing and dance for the work well done and helping each by their hand. MAY THE 4-WINDS and COMPASS ROSE BE OUR AIDED GUIDES

  12. Matt says:

    What a great man and great American! He will be missed. As an educator I will continue to teach of his legacy. In the words of President Clinton, “He sang it like he saw it!”

  13. Nancy Solomon says:

    I was a volunteer crew member back in 1975 and remember Pete not only for his incredible music and commitment to social justice, the environment and the anti war movement, but also for his caring of the crew. Once a week we were taken to someone’s home for a clean shower and a hot meal, and so that we could call our parents (if we chose to) to let them know we were alive. I am so glad I had that experience and these last few days all I find myself doing is humming so many wonderful songs. May he be leading a hootenanny with others as we mourn and celebrate his life and legacy.

  14. Brett Kolfrat says:

    We are the Sea. I Sail in you and you Sail in me

  15. Rhoda Cohen says:

    I first heard Pete Seeger sing when I actively campaigned for Henry Wallace in 1948.I was a delegate for Local 1199 and would suggest he include ‘abled and disabled’ along with ‘rich and poor, and ‘black and white’. When I crewed on the Clearwater, Pete would come aboard and discuss access to the boat and the festival. He was open to inclusion of wheelchairs and helped me and others to build the first ‘port-a-potty for what was billed as an accessible Croton-on-Hudson festival. He was always open to concepts that brought people together.

  16. Christina says:

    Thank you, Pete, for the truthful, generous, integral being you were ~ you touched & inspired me deeply just because you were you ~ I believe a great soul has departed & it feels ‘quiet’ with out your presence ~ may you be free & happy to continue your journey ~ OHM

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