For Pete’s sake: This weekend’s Clearwater Festival

Pete Seeger on board the Clearwater in the 1970s (Courtesy of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater)

In her song “Southern California Wants to Be Western New York,” singer/songwriter Dar Williams imagines a theme park on the West Coast for jaded, suntanned people who long to experience the homespun joys of upstate New York living:

 

And they’ll have puttering on rainy weekends, autumn days that make you feel sad,
They’ll have hundred-year-old plumbing and the family you never had,
And a Hudson River cleanup concert…

 

Okay, so it’s not in the western part of the state, but it has always been pretty clear to me that the concert that Williams had in mind is the one that she’ll be revisiting as a performer this weekend: the by-now-venerable Great Hudson River Revival, better-known to most as the Clearwater Festival.

The Clearwater Festival evolved out of the waterfront “folk picnics” organized by Pete Seeger and friends in the mid-1960s to pass the hat (his banjo case, actually) and raise money for what seemed at the time a mad idea: to build an authentic full-size replica of a 19th-century Hudson River sloop. Pete wanted to sail it to ports up and down the river as a sort of floating environmental education classroom, rallying citizens to take an activist role in cleaning up and protecting the pollution-befouled estuary.

Some people scoffed, but look where we are now: The sloop Clearwater has been plying the waters for more than 45 years, and a couple of generations of school kids in the Valley have trodden her deck and identified aquatic critters caught in her nets. A handful of riverfront communities (including Poughkeepsie) now safely draw and treat their drinking water from the Hudson; you can even swim in it. And fans of acoustic music by the thousands come every year to Croton Point Park on the weekend nearest the Summer Solstice to soak up Pete’s environmental message along with an earful of songs from around the globe, performed by musicians of every degree of fame.

It’s always a fabulous party, but this year is going to be different in a major way: It’s the first time that the Clearwater Festival will not feature Pete Seeger in person. His physical absence will be a heartache to many, but his spirit – not to mention that of his wife Toshi, who predeceased him by six months – is so thoroughly interwoven with the event that every aspect of the festivities reflects the values that the activist couple embodied. The fair food tends toward the healthful and meatless; the tee-shirts sold by the vendors mostly sport progressive political messages; musicians on the main stages are accompanied by American Sign Language interpreters so accomplished that their dancelike performances become an integral part of the show even for those whose sense of hearing is just fine.

With the music commencing at 11 a.m. both days, the festival will kick off on Saturday with multi-artist tributes to Pete and Toshi in song and dance on several of the seven stages. And it’s a fair bet that performers throughout the weekend will be honoring the founders with reminiscences and songs from Pete’s repertoire – perhaps even a few new originals composed in his honor. One of the great joys of the Clearwater Festival over the years has always been the casual way in which performers – even the biggest names on tap – will drop in on each others’ sets or take their turns in a song swap; but expect that democratic structure be even more pronounced this year, with such a strong focus on Pete’s legacy and influence.

The matchup that would have put this correspondent into the Let-Me-Die-Happy-Right-Now zone – a jam between the English guitar god/songwriters’ songwriter Richard Thompson and masterful American blues/bluegrass crossover showman David Bromberg – is, alas, unlikely to occur, since Thompson (a Clearwater first-timer) is scheduled to be present only on Saturday evening and Bromberg only on Sunday afternoon. But together or separately, they exemplify the level of talent that the Clearwater festival consistently attracts. Other top-name folkie acts on this year’s roster include Lucinda Williams, Rufus Wainwright (another first-timer), Martin Sexton, Holly Near, Tom Paxton, Guy Davis (presuming that the recent death of his mother, actress Ruby Dee, doesn’t keep him away), Rory Block, Buckwheat Zydeco, the Klezmatics, Tony Trischka, Josh White, Jr., Garland Jeffreys, Josh Ritter, the Mavericks, moe.Acoustic, David Amram, Tom Chapin, the aforementioned Dar Williams and Norah Jones’s new trio Puss N Boots.

Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, one of the Civil Rights movement’s original Freedom Singers and founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock, will be there along with her daughter Toshi Reagon, who was named after Toshi Seeger. Plenty of local faves like Jay Ungar & Molly Mason, the Vanaver Caravan, Elizabeth Mitchell, Betty and the Baby Boomers, Dog on Fleas and Arm-of-the-Sea Theater will be on hand as well, plus the proverbial Host of Others. There’s a Family Stage devoted to kid-friendly music, another for storytelling and yet another just for people who want to dance all weekend long. For the full artist lineup and schedule, visit www.clearwaterfestival.org/stage-schedules.

The 500+-acre Croton Point Park provides space for lots of other attractions as well, including environmental exhibits, an artisanal food and farm market, a Green Living Expo, a children’s play area, a craft village and a working waterfront where a lucky few folks who sign up in advance on the Clearwater website can catch rides around the bay on the sloop Clearwater or the schooner Mystic Whaler. Tickets for the two-hour sails cost $15 to $45 over and above admission to the festival itself, which runs from $56 in advance for one day only for Clearwater members to $200 at the gate for the full weekend plus camping privileges. Kids age 12 and under get in free. On-site parking is limited, but the park is close to the Croton Metro North station and a shuttle runs continuously. Call (877) 435-9849 or visit www.clearwaterfestival.org for the full scoop.

Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival, Saturday/Sunday, June 21/22, 9 a.m.-9 p.m., $56-$200, Croton Point Park, 1A Croton Point Avenue, Croton-on-Hudson; (877) 435-9849, www.clearwaterfestival.org.

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