During his long life, Pete Seeger was many things... a folk singer, political activist, environmental advocate, and, as it turns out, a former neighbor of mine. Well he didn't live next door, but in the next town. When I was a kid growing up in New York most of the adults I knew distrusted him as a banjo playing commie. (True on both counts for at least part of his life.) One of my parent's best friends was Pete's electrician and bridge partner. Apparently he was a hell of a bridge player too.
What I remember Pete Seeger for was his sloop - the Clearwater, that sailed the Hudson when I was a boy. I caught sight of it on several occasions plying the wide waters of the river. It lit up my imagination, and many others as well, and it became a symbol that called us back to the Hudson, which at that time was a majestic - yet toxic stew of chemicals, sewage and debris.
Pete's campaign for the Hudson changed things. Today, people actually swim in the Hudson and consume the fish caught there. Unthinkable when I was a boy. All along the river, towns are sprucing up their waterfronts and embracing the beauty and history of "the American Rhine."
Here is a nice essay from The Last Word on Nothing about Pete and The Clearwater campaign.
When Pete and his wife Toshi bought land in Beacon, New York, in the 1940s, moving upstate to Beacon was not a hip thing to do. The Hudson’s riverfront towns had busted decades earlier, and they were tough little places — still are, in many respects. Many obituaries have mentioned that at the time the Seegers arrived, the Hudson River was dirty. Well, it was filthy. Almost anyone could dump almost anything into the river, no permit required: sewage, garbage, industrial waste in all its awful variety. Bacteria consumed so much oxygen that fish sometimes suffocated in the water. Near Tarrytown, about 25 miles north of Manhattan, the color of the river changed to match the color of the paint applied to cars at the local General Motors plant. You didn’t fish in the Hudson if you valued your health, and you didn’t swim in it if you valued your life.
So Pete ordered up a big wooden boat. Which, at first, made sense to just about nobody. But Pete thought that a graceful, old-fashioned boat — a replica of the sloops that sailed the river in the 18th and 19th centuries — would draw people to their forgotten riverfronts, and that from the riverfronts they could imagine a different future for the Hudson.
The 106-foot-long Hudson River Sloop Clearwater sailed from a Maine shipyard in the spring of 1969, traveling south to New York City and then north to its home on the Hudson — into waters whose bacterial concentrations were 170 times safe levels.
The tall-masted sloop was hard to ignore, and so were Pete and his banjo. People did come to the broken-down riverfronts, and they did start to make noise, and the attention Pete and his allies drew to the deplorable state of the Hudson eventually contributed to the passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972. (While Congress debated the law, Pete pressed his case by sailing the Clearwater sloop to D.C. and holding an impromptu concert in the halls of Congress — which may or may not have helped.) The Clean Water Act regulated discharge and funded sewage treatment, and bit by bit the Hudson got cleaner. Levels of bacteria and pollutants declined. Fish returned, and slowly got healthier.