Wednesday April 23rd, 2014, 3:37 am (EDT)

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Possibility and Hope: Getting from Here to There

Linda C. Forbes teaches organizational studies at franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
This interview was originally published in Organization & Environment 17, no. 4: 513–522, as “Pete Seeger On Environmental Advocacy, Organizing, and Education in the Hudson River Valley: An Interview with the Music Legend, Author and Storyteller, Political and Environmental Activist, and Grassroots Organizer.

Prelude

Pete Seeger is one of the world’s quintessential activists, having played such an important role in singing the songs and engaging in the struggles of civil rights, free speech, human rights, anti-Vietnam War, environmental, peace, anti-nuclear, and social justice movements. (David Kupfer, “Longtime Passing,” Whole Earth Magazine, 104, 2001, p. 19.)

John Muir’s advocacy for the environment emphasized the importance of immersion in beautiful and pristine natural settings. Muir struck a chord with readers that still inspires today when, in his classic 1901 book Our National Parks, he wrote,

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. (p.1)

Muir’s battles for the preservation of natural resources in the United States are well known. He was fighting to save spectacular areas from destruction.

Like Muir, Pete Seeger is an environmental advocate who understands the transforming power of immersion in nature. However, his desire to restore his cherished Hudson River posed a monumental challenge in the 1960s. The Hudson River, once so majestic that it inspired the Hudson River School painters, had become a sewer for the communities and commercial industries that populated its shoreline. Seeger’s approach to reversing the degradation of the Hudson River involved a unique form of advocacy and organizing. He envisioned healing the Hudson through immersion. His approach involved bringing people back to the river aboard a 106-foot replica of a Hudson River sloop (a single-masted sailboat), one that resembled the boats that traversed the Hudson in centuries past. By 1969, with Seeger as the driving force behind its creation, the sloop Clearwater was constructed and launched. It still sails today and serves as an inspiring symbol of citizen activism on behalf of the natural environment. As will be illustrated below, it is also a model for innovative environmental education. (For current information on the sloop Clearwater and the Clearwater Organization, see http://www.clearwater.org.)

As many readers know, Pete Seeger is a folk music legend, provocative author, storyteller par excellence, and vigilant activist on many fronts. When I interviewed him, I asked him to recount the story of the Clearwater and reflect on organizing for effective social and environmental change. We talked on a warm, sunny afternoon on the shore of the Hudson River. We met just before the monthly meeting of the Beacon (New York) Sloop Club was to begin. Located in Pete’s hometown, the Beacon Sloop Club is affiliated with the Clearwater Organization and meets in a building at the pier that was formerly a ferry diner. Pete told me that the Beacon Sloop Club has been meeting for more than thirty years on the first Friday of the month, no matter the weather. At the monthly meeting, there is a potluck dinner (I brought pumpkin pies), a business meeting, and singing afterward for anyone interested in staying on. The Beacon Sloop Club is an all-volunteer group that extends an open invitation to anyone with an interest in learning to sail or to anyone who would like to simply take a free sail to enjoy the Hudson River on the sloop Woody Guthrie, a small version of the 108-foot-tall Clearwater. At eighty-five Pete remains an active member of the club. On the agenda that night were reports on fundraising events to support the maintenance of the Woody Guthrie and a new project, a recent brainchild of Pete’s, the construction of a floating swimming pool (“Riverpool”) on the Hudson for the community.

Forty years after Pete Seeger wrote the song “My Dirty Stream,” his Hudson River is now clean enough for swimming along the Hudson Highlands. The Riverpool is a contemporary version of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century floating bathhouses that dotted the perimeter of Manhattan and rivers in some European cities. Like the Hudson River sloops Clearwater and Woody Guthrie, it is intended to promote the “use, awareness and stewardship of the Hudson River” while providing a safe area for swimming and wading (see http://www.riverpool.org).

That night, I also enjoyed an evening sail on the Woody Guthrie. Although I had lived for four years in Poughkeepsie, just a few miles north of Beacon, I never got on the river. While teaching at Marist College, located directly on the Hudson, I spent countless hours along its banks. I watched my daughters row crew on the Hudson and delighted in the scenic beauty of the valley. During those years, I had come to appreciate not only the beauty of the Hudson, but also its unique place in environmental history. It is an exemplary site of environmental struggles—a confluence of interests has fought and continues to battle over its uses and care. Frances Reese, the first chairwoman of Scenic Hudson (an environmental and land trust organization devoted to protecting, preserving, and restoring the Hudson River and its waterfront), spoke to my business and environment class while I was at Marist College. She told the story of how the Scenic Hudson group, along with the Hudson River Fisherman’s Association (and many other individuals and groups) had fought for seventeen years to prevent Consolidated Edison from building a pump storage facility at Storm King Mountain (just south of Beacon). In the process, they helped to establish significant legal precedents for environmental protection and programs such as the Riverkeeper program of the Hudson River Fisherman’s Association, which became a model for waterway monitoring and protection across the country (see http://www.scenic.hudson.org/ and http://www.riverkeeper.org/).

The Interview

When I spoke with Pete Seeger on the phone about setting up the interview, he talked about the importance of organizing (in many forms) as a key to our future. During the formal interview, I asked him to elaborate on organizing and specifically on how this worked with the example of the Hudson River sloop Clearwater and its educational mission.

Pete Seeger: For thousands of years, the establishment, whatever they called themselves, consciously wanted to keep their opposition from organizing. Very often, organizations were specifically forbidden and if they disobeyed, people were hanged, sliced through, whatever. However, within these thousands of years, people found a way to get something done or said in spite of it all. Sometimes it was with songs, sometimes with pictures or sculpture, sometimes with stories and plays. There’s an old Arabic proverb that when the king puts the poet on his payroll he cuts off the tongue of the poet. And Plato is supposed to have said that it’s very dangerous to allow the wrong kind of music in the Republic. Well, this has been a life long (almost) and a very exciting search to find ways to say things and get people together. But I never expected that a sailboat would be able to do the things that it did.

Initially, it was recreation for me. I had a job on Cape Cod and a friend had taught me how to sail in a small boat. I realized that there was something almost magical about it. The wind and the waves—you play a game with them. The wind can be coming from the north, but if you slant your sails right you can go northwest, then northeast, then northwest, then northeast, and use the very power of the north wind to inch your way north. And this in a sense is good politics too. Martin Luther King, Jr., would do this and then he’d do that. He’d get thrown in jail, but then he’d get more publicity and more contributions.

[Pete pauses at the sound of a Metro North train passing through the Beacon train station behind us.] I suppose you know that the oil business and the automobile business have done their best to put an end to railroads, but they haven’t succeeded. And, we now have what amounts to socialist train service in the Hudson Valley. It really is. It’s cheaper than ever and it’s on time, whereas thirty years ago it was very bad train service. Why was it improved? Not because we the people complained, but because the real estate business wanted to make money. When we started to clean up the Hudson, they said, “Oh, we can make billions of dollars selling real estate along the Hudson. Hey, government, give ’em good train service.” And the government listened to the real estate business.

Well, a friend of mine loaned me a book [W. E. Verplanck and M. W. Collyer’s, The Sloops of the Hudson]. I’m a history nut, and this book was written in the year 1908 by two middle-aged gents from this part of the world. One was a retired captain of a commercial cargo sloop. There were about four hundred of them on the river in the mid-nineteenth century. Nineteenth-century New York was built with Hudson River bricks and Catskill and Adirondack lumber, and they were hauled on boats like the Clearwater. The main author was William Verplanck, an upper-middle-class man and a yachtsman, but he loved sloops and he wrote it with his friend Moses Collyer of the famous Collyer family (the two Collyer brothers). They said, “These were the most beautiful boats we ever knew and they will never be seen again.” It wasn’t great literature, but it was full of love. I wrote a letter to the man who had loaned me the book and said, “Why don’t we get some people together and build a replica of one of these. They built a replica of the Mayflower. Rudy Schaefer, the beer millionaire, made a replica of the famous yacht America, which won the America’s Cup. Nobody we know has this kind of money, but if we got a thousand people together and if everybody chipped in we could do it.”

Now it was quite amusing. We didn’t know how to start until a businessman in Cold Spring, Alexander Saunders, had an idea for a concert. He ran a small metals business supplying rare metals to business. He was a member of Scenic Hudson. He was on their board of directors. He asked a mutual friend, Vic Schwartz, an artist who lives in Cold Spring and is a little younger than I am, not much, “Would Seeger give us a fund-raising concert?” I said fine. But when Saunders took the idea to the board of directors of Scenic Hudson, they said, “Oh don’t touch Seeger with a ten-foot pole. If we have anything to do with him, we will be tarred with the same brush!” So Saunders came back, “Sorry they turned me down, but I’d like to hear some music so maybe we can raise some money for something else.” And that’s when Vic said, “Pete and I are talking about trying to raise money to build a Hudson River sloop.” Saunders commented, “Oh that’s interesting.” A month or two later, on Saunders’s lawn, I sang for 160 people, and we passed the hat and got in about 160 dollars. The important thing was that in his living room during the intermission, we voted to start an organization that at that time was called the Hudson River Sloop Restoration, Inc. One of the members was a lawyer and got us nonprofit status.

Three years later, we voted to call the boat Clearwater. It was a narrow vote. A number of the members wanted to call it Heritage. They said, “Stay away from environmental confrontation. It will make for bad feelings. Let the boat be a graceful symbol of the past.” But the younger members voted by a narrow margin, I think it was only 5 percent, to call it Clearwater. And, little by little, the younger members made a more democratic organization and voted that the purpose of Clearwater was to restore the Hudson. We didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t know how to pay for it. A captain’s salary had to be paid for, and the Coast Guard said you must have six trained crew members even if you supplement them with volunteers. And we found out that the insurance—we thought it might be four or five thousand dollars, no, it was going to be twenty thousand dollars or more. How were we going to raise that every year? We didn’t know. Then one of our young volunteers invented a way to teach children on board. And it’s such a neat way, that I must describe it. Fifty kids pile out of a bus, and they’re divided into five groups. When the boat is sailing ten are sent to the starboard side and learn to put a net into the water to catch some fish while ten are sent to the port side to put some water from the river under a microscope. “Hey, what’s those wiggly things?” A volunteer crew member (five years ago, it was my twelve-year-old granddaughter) says, “That’s called plankton. Plankton is for fish, what grass is for cows.” The murkiness in the river is not all pollution; much of it is plankton. And so we found that schools loved for their kids to go out. “Please take our sixth grade out next year or our fourth grade.” They found it’s the junior high school grades that are the best. They’re learning about the world, and they haven’t become cynical yet. There are so many schools wanting us to take them out that we could keep three Clearwaters busy. As it is, we charter a nice schooner from Mystic, Connecticut. It’s called the Mystic Whaler. It comes to New York before their tourist season begins. They take school children out in the Hudson. So, Clearwater invented a way to pay for itself.

Now there are eleven or twelve other boats in the United States doing what Clearwater does—in Puget Sound; in Sarasota, Florida; two boats in Chesapeake Bay; a boat in Delaware Bay; three or four up the New England coast; and two in Lake Michigan. Some are very large. Most of them combine an interest with history and an interest in sailing and a concern for what the future of the body of water is going to be.

Linda Forbes: You also have the Clearwater Festival.

PS: We have a festival that makes maybe fifty thousand dollars a year. Sometimes it loses if there is bad rain. Sometimes it makes more. And we’re slowly learning to sell all sorts of little things. This is an old trick. You have to raise money and so what do you sell? You sell postcards, calendars, pictures, books, records, and T-shirts.

LF: There’s something special about the fun, music, the musicians, and the celebration of nature at the Clearwater Festival. You talked a little at the beginning about the role of musicians and the role of artists, and I’ve seen in other places where you talk about the role of humor as a crucial element. How important is it for organizing, our humanity, and our relationship with nature?

PS: I think the world’s greatest thinkers have often been aware that the contradictions of life are almost humorous. This fact, that we now have better train service because of the real estate business and yet the real estate business is out to gentrify the whole valley. As a matter of fact, if the valley keeps on increasing its population at this rate, in a hundred years it will look like Manhattan. New York City was twenty thousand people when George Washington was inaugurated and in 140 years it was seven million. You can’t keep doubling forever. One of the local politicians said to me, “But Pete, if you don’t grow you die!” At one o’clock in the morning, I thought of the next question: “If that is true, doesn’t it follow that the quicker we grow the sooner we die?” The world is only so big. And sooner or later the whole human race must face up to the need to find out how we can have full employment for everybody without having inflation, how we can have decent schools and health care for everybody. Who has the exact answer? As you know, the Communists were sure that they had the right answer back in the 1930s. They wouldn’t even speak to the Trotskyites or the Socialists. The Trotskyites or the Socialists wouldn’t speak to them. I’m now convinced that if there’s a human race it will continue because everybody—I mean everybody—is willing to speak even though it’s difficult. How would one speak to a Ku Klux Klan member or to a Nazi that’s convinced that Hitler had the answer to the world?

I remind people that the same word often means different things to different people. And, I rather suspect myself that Marx would have said amen to Rosa Luxemburg when she wrote to Lenin in January 1919 saying, “Comrade Lenin, I hear that you have censorship of the press and restrict the right of people to freely assemble. Don’t you realize that in a few years a new elite will make all the decisions in your country and the masses will only be called in to dutifully applaud your decisions?”

Of course, that’s exactly what happened. I think people with a sense of humor do better. I think of the possibilities if Ho Chi Minh had lived—he had a wonderful sense of humor. He was always cracking jokes. He once came to an army camp, and he was supposed to give a speech, but he looked through the tent, and there were the officers in front and the noncoms next and in the back were the privates. He didn’t enter the tent from that end. He walked around to the other end of the tent and there he hollered, “About face!” and gave a short speech to the effect that the rank-and-file were the most important part of the army, the most important part of the country, and the most important part of the world. And he showed by his own example that the best leaders are those that can inspire the rank-and-file to do their best. He was really a genius. His father was a school teacher. When he was young, he managed to get a job on a ship and go to Paris, and he attended a socialist convention and chided the French proletariat for not giving freedom to their colonies. They weren’t thinking of it. They wanted France to be strong and in charge. When Ho Chi Minh took over the government, there was a big palace that he was supposed to live in. He said, “You have other people take care of that big building. I’m going to live in that little building.” There was a little shack in the back of the palace. A workshop—he had it set up with a bedroom and a study. If there was going to be a conference, he was willing to go to the palace. He lived in that little shack with his office.

Just as with other great words, the word environment means different things. You might say that a cave woman twenty thousand years ago sweeping out the cave was improving the environment. Many people improving the environment think only in terms of the air they breathe in their hometown and the water in the aquifer under their hometown. My guess is very few are thinking centuries ahead or thousand of years ahead, but that’s what we have to do.

I made up a little story. I call it “The Hexagons.” It’s a piece of science fiction. When they [humans] get around to exploring Mars, they find out that Mars had life. Mars had intelligent life, but we call them Hexagons because they had four arms and two legs and 360-degree vision like insects. Most of their buildings were hexagonal, like Bucky Fuller’s geodesic dome. However, the more we study them, we find that there were two previous periods of technological society [on Mars]; both wiped themselves out. They were both rectangular societies like ours. One only lasted a few thousand years. And five million years before that there was a quite different rectangular society that only lasted a few hundred years.

[Humans learn that] when the Hexagons discovered these two [previous civilizations], they came to the conclusion that all technological societies tended to self-destruct. They asked, “What should we do?” They studied these two previous societies in detail, and they became very conservative. Nothing was manufactured unless there was Mars-wide consensus that there would be no bad side effects. It took years to reach the proper consensus. Meanwhile inventors were furious. They said, “This would help so much, but you won’t let me try it because of a few screwy people unwilling to agree.” Nothing was even researched by scientists unless there was Mars-wide consensus that it was safe to research it. Because after all, if you put dangerous information in the hands of insane power-hungry people, Hexagons, they’ll do bad things. So, the Hexagons lasted not just for thousands or tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years. They didn’t even reduce their population quickly until everybody felt that nobody was mistreated and there was complete consensus on how to reduce the population—a little at a time. So the Hexagons lasted for literally millions of years!

At that time it was impossible to have much life on earth. Earth was being bombarded by asteroids every few minutes. The earliest life we can find on earth, I think, was 353 million years ago. It had some bacterial life at least. We don’t know what else. And the Hexagons tried to send space ships out to other parts of the galaxy, but never heard from them again. And, finally Mars had no more air and no more water and couldn’t support life at all. Now we discover them only by digging under four hundred million years worth of dust and rock that has fallen on Mars. That’s my little science fiction story.

LF: I know that we need to wrap up. I can see that people are coming. [A group of musicians are waiting for Pete to rehearse.] I just read what I believe was your most recent and last Appleseeds column [Sing Out!, summer 2004]. You said something that really touched me. You said that you were optimistic about the country and the world as you see women and men working in thousands of communities and working with young people to solve local problems. Would you comment on that?

PS: At first I thought that this was my idea. Now I find that many people have had that thought. There are little things going on everywhere in our country and I bet in other parts of the world too. It might be cultural things. It might be scientific things. It might be religious things. It might be sports. Needless to say, all these movements don’t agree with each other, but at least they’re not trying to kill each other and are coexisting in some way. I guess I was put on to this feeling by the biologist Rene Dubos and his great phrase, “Think globally, act locally.” It may be working people in an industrial downtown area or maybe middle-class people in the suburbs, but I see all sorts of exciting things going on. And I’m not even as pessimistic as I might be about the elections. The powers that be are so clever and they’ve got so much money—this is the kind of thing they can do. Two days before the election, they have some outrageous thing done by provocateurs and it’s photographed. One day before the election it’s on TV from coast-to-coast, there’s no time to expose it as a fraud, and millions of people see it and say, “Oh, yes that’s terrible! I guess I’ll have to vote for the president.” That kind of thing can be done.

Even if Bush gets elected two months from now, there are going to be extraordinary, wonderful things happening within the next few years. The tradition, not just the piece of paper, saying that there’s a thing called the Bill of Rights, is so strong. In 1967, my wife and I were almost run out of this town. A headline in the New York Times said, “Seeger Sings Anti-American Song in Moscow.” It wasn’t true, and Turner Catledge (then editor of the New York Times) agreed with me when I read him the words, over the telephone, of the song. He had just picked up a little item from the Paris edition of the International Herald Tribune and reprinted it. But nevertheless, a small group of right-wingers went up and down Main Street and got seven hundred signatures saying that I should not be allowed to sing in the high school (at a concert that had been scheduled). And, some people said, “Pete, you should cancel the concert. You’re going to be run out of town.” But Toshi and I felt that it was worthwhile sticking to it and having the concert. It turned out the place was packed and many of the people who had signed those seven hundred petitions did so under force. “You’d better sign that or you’re not going to get any of our business.” That kind of thing. And now, I’m glad to say that Clearwater has changed the whole picture. Toshi and I go downtown and almost any person will say, “Hi Tosh, hi Pete.” And they come down to our strawberry shortcake festival in June or the corn festival in August or the pumpkin party in September. The rehearsal today is because the day after tomorrow Newburgh [the town directly across the river] has a big annual Labor Day Festival—a two-day festival—and the mayor asked me to sing some songs.

LF: Thank you very much. [Before leaving, I ask Pete about a couple of names on the New York Times articles and he elaborates on the story.]

PS: Just in general, I’d sung throughout the Soviet Union and in Moscow some students at the university said, “I know it’s not scheduled, but your tickets are sold out and could you sing for the Moscow students.” And I said, “Sure.” A man called Peter Grose asked, “Can you get me in? They won’t let me on the campus.” So I said, “Sure, carry my banjo case.” And, he ignored all the positive songs that I sang and concentrated on this one song that I hadn’t been singing throughout the concert tour (this was 1967). I was concentrating on the civil rights movement, but a question came up, “Mr. Seeger, what are the college students singing?” And I told them about Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, and I sang this song which I had written, taking the words from a letter in the local newspaper by a woman in the little town of Cornwall, across the river: “Dear Editor: What’s our country coming to? This is the letter that I got from my husband a month ago.” She quotes him. “He said, ‘We’ve got no friends here. We’ve got some generals and all they really want is our guns.’” And then, she said, “Last week I went down to bring his coffin back.”

So, I put it all into rhyme: [Pete sings]

He said we’ve no friends here no hardly a one
We’ve got a few generals who just want our guns

and so on.

LF: [In closing, I ask Pete about the time that he spends with young people and in schools.]

PS: It cheers me up. You can’t look at those young faces and say that there’s no hope.

Postscript

We are all indebted to Pete Seeger for his inspiration and devotion to improving the world. I am grateful that he was willing to recount the Clearwater story and share some of his thoughts on organizing. When I first asked him by phone to talk about his experiences as an organizer, he made it clear that those who do the behind-the-scenes maintenance work do much of the work of organizing. For example, he was quick to give credit to the volunteers who maintain the Clearwater Organization. Pete’s life work has been recognized and honored on numerous occasions (e.g., 1994 Presidential Medal of Arts and Kennedy Center Award; 1996 Harvard Arts Medal; 1996 Inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; 1997 Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album, Pete; and 2001 Rex Foundation’s Ralph J. Gleason Award for outstanding contribution to culture), but in our conversation leading up to this interview he only shared one such acclamation. He told me about the Peace Quilt that had been stitched in his honor by the Boise Peace Quilt Project. I believe he shared this to provide an example of how people can find a variety of ways to come together with political purpose. This nonprofit group awarded Pete a quilt in 1983 as a “heartfelt tribute for courage, for hope, [and as a symbol of how] musical threads bind our lives together.” Pete’s response to this honor is a fitting closing for this interview: “This patchwork quilt is really a symbol of the world which must come: one new design made out of many old designs. We will stitch this world together yet. Don’t give up” (see www.boisepeacequilt.org/).