How Pete Seeger Turned Green

Socialist Pete Seeger, born on this day in 1919, is widely acknowledged to be one of America’s greatest folk singers. Less appreciated is his environmentalism, which he always saw as inextricable from his left-wing politics.

Pete Seeger performs onstage at South Street, New York City, New York, August 18, 1968. The performance was designed to raise awareness and money for the cleanup of the Hudson River. (Harvey L. Silver / Corbis via Getty Images)

Styled “America’s tuning fork” by Studs Terkel, Pete Seeger (1919–2014) was known for his anthems of protest and his support for the labor struggle, civil rights, and the antiwar movement; yet arguably, his most innovative contribution to the American left was his environmental activism. Although this work spanned fifty years of his life, it has received the least amount of acknowledgment and recognition. Seeger’s environmental pivot emerged from a space of revolt in the aftermath of political persecution during the Second Red Scare. Denounced as “un-American” and pushed outside of mainstream media outlets during the 1950s and ’60s, he was forced to rethink how to enact social change from the political margins. Out of this experience of political suppression, Seeger launched a new kind of movement.

Seeger’s decision to plead the First when he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1955 altered the trajectory of his life and career. While other unfriendly witnesses opted for the Fifth after the Hollywood Ten were cited for contempt in 1947, Seeger took a bold, principled approach — one advocated by Albert Einstein. Predictably, Seeger was also charged with contempt. After a seven-year battle over his case, which resulted in the dismissal of his charges, he remained barred from television and faced demonstrators at his concerts who branded him a subversive. Some venues simply barred him from performing. Even WQED, the public television station in Pittsburgh known for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, canceled Seeger’s gratis folk performance on a program for children called Dimple Depot because of the singer’s “Commie ties.”

During this political and personal struggle, Seeger took up sailing only to encounter industrial toxins and “toilet waste” on the Hudson River. For Seeger, the pollution evoked John Kenneth Galbraith’s notion of “private affluence amid public squalor.” Two books also prompted an environmental revolution in his thinking. The first and most obvious one was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The second, however, was a more idiosyncratic choice. In 1963, Vic Schwarz, fellow musician, artist, and history buff, loaned Seeger a copy of the book The Sloops of the Hudson, which featured images of the elegant single-masted wooden ships of a bygone era. This prompted an extraordinary, even preposterous idea: Could they resurrect one of these extinct vessels as an emblem for the nascent environmental struggle? By building a community boat for the people, Seeger hoped to reclaim the neglected river and the act of sailing itself, which had become a hobby for the rich, despite its ties to working-class labor history.

In the years that followed, Seeger attempted to raise money for the Great Hudson Sloop Restoration project through grassroots benefit concerts. Musically, this green evolution corresponded with his album God Bless the Grass, which he released in 1966. Contending with resistance from some who ridiculed his idealism and even more who perceived him as a threat to national security, Seeger performed old folk standards alongside new songs about an earth in crisis, such as “My Dirty Stream.” He also told stories about the polluted Hudson and outlined the plans for the construction of the boat. Despite the benign character of this set list, he was stymied at every level. Three hundred protesters picketed his concert in Westbury, New York, in March of 1967 — a performance that had been called off the previous year and only rescheduled after a legal battle, which determined the cancellation unconstitutional. Later that month in Granville, New York, the American Legion organized a demonstration, but when Seeger arrived, they changed their course and instead opted to monitor the standing-room-only show from the back of the auditorium.

When Seeger finally returned to television on a variety show hosted by the Smothers Brothers in September of 1967, CBS censored his performance of “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” In some towns, the rumors alone were enough to prompt nervous organizers to postpone or cancel Seeger’s benefits. In January of 1969, the Nyack Board of Education voted to bar him from performing at the high school auditorium because, as one concerned member explained, “I did some research on this man. I found he did some work for the Communist Party. He was affiliated with the Daily Worker.”

Raising the money was not the only obstacle to the project. No Hudson River sloop survived the nineteenth century extant, so finding a marine architect willing to design an obsolete vessel also presented a challenge. Nevertheless, with his expertise, eye for detail, and artistic sensibility, Cyrus Hamlin took on the task using two sources: a plan from a maritime magazine and a detailed painting. Local legend Harvey Gamage of Maine directed the labor and construction of the vessel, optimistically christened the Clearwater. After they laid the keel in October of 1968, the donations increased.  Seven months later, on May 17, 1969, in South Bristol, Maine, the 106-foot wooden sloop, as Hamlin recalled, “slid into the water” for its maiden voyage.

“We had a wonderful singing crew,” Seeger reminisced upon the group he rallied together for the journey. This cross-section of sailors and musicians included countercultural Captain Allan Aunapu; civil rights activists Len Chandler, Jimmy Collier, and Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick; first mate Gordon Bok; sea shanty performer Lou Killen; and a young Don MacLean. While American news outlets covered the quest to clean up the river, reports did not highlight how the ecological mission extended beyond water pollution to encompass civil rights and antiwar resistance. When the sloop arrived in New York, Chandler performed his powerful protest song “Turn Around, Miss Liberty” in front of the Statue of Liberty. In a 1969 CBC interview on the deck of the Clearwater, Seeger belted out the chorus from “Bring Them Home” and then lamented the censorship in the American media landscape: “I don’t know what a song can do. But there must be something in a song or they wouldn’t try to blacklist them off TV.”

Singing and sailing along a river that Aunapu described as smelling “like diesel fuel,” the Sloop Singers stopped in the towns along the banks of the Hudson to perform concerts at every port. Collier remembered their daily life on the boat:

The hole where we slept was tiny. We were feet to head, feet to head. . . . What you got from that was being a sailor was not a fun lifestyle . . . and there was no beer down there.

Seeger recalled the resistance they faced: “They said these hippies will have this thing sunk or sold within a year.” Yet despite the difficulties of the labor for this group of musicians, who were not all used to sailing, the dedication to the cause kept them going. “We were fulfilling a mission, and whether it was popular or not or people embraced it, we didn’t care,” Collier recollected.

Despite the opposition, the movement grew, albeit slowly. Five hundred welcomed the arrival of the boat in Croton-on-Hudson in July; an older man came to the river and offered Seeger a mango, which he shared with the crowd. Locals jumped on board and learned how to raise the sail. Seeger made progress in Nyack too; when he returned in August of 1969, the town that had banned him now welcomed him for a concert at Memorial Park.

However, he faced controversy close to home in Kingston that September. One of his staunchest antagonists was Democrat and local politician John P. Heitzman, who would later become mayor of the city. This was not the first time Seeger faced resistance in the Hudson Valley. The 1949 Peekskill Riots, a racist anti-communist mob attack on Paul Robeson, Seeger, and other performers left a lifelong impression on Seeger, whose car was belted with stones, shattering the windows. Twenty years later, in an editorial in the Kingston Daily Freeman, an anonymous detractor demanded to know, “Is Pete Seeger interested in cleaning up the Hudson, or is he a modern Pied Piper using this cause as a front to spread an ideology that is contrary to our American way?”

Seeger explained how he sustained the momentum in the face of such resistance:

The wind may be blowing against you, but if you use your sails right you can sail into the wind, into the wind, into the wind and you make slow progress using the very power of the wind that is against you. This is a great analogy in life. If you can use the forces against you to push ahead, you’re winning.

With its distinctive aesthetic and its singing sailors, the Clearwater became a symbol of the colossal battle against corporate greed, linking the fight for the Hudson with a national environmental movement on the rise. In 1970, the Clearwater sailed to Washington, DC, for the first Earth Day, and Seeger performed before Congress. In 1972, the Clean Water Act passed, despite Richard Nixon’s veto.

Over the years, the boat became the center of an environmental awakening that fomented campaigns and creative projects along the river, linking the local and the global. In 1978, Toshi Seeger expanded the concept of the riverside concert and created a two-day event called the Great Hudson River Revival (also known as the Clearwater Festival). The decades that followed are filled with stories of people whose lives were changed by what became a political and artistic movement, from Dan Searles, a resident of Beacon who helped transform the dump at the Beacon rail station into what is now known as the Pete and Toshi Seeger Riverside Park, to countless crew members on the Clearwater like Andra Sramek, who gave their time and energy to steer the course of the ship over the years.

Seeger’s goal was to prompt the formation of small sloop clubs in towns along the river, all with their own boats, managed by volunteers whose activism would be driven by local concerns. He had always dreamed the Clearwater would be surrounded by dozens of these sloops, and while several popped up in the early 1970s and ’80s, including the Woody Guthrie and the Sojourner Truth, the plan did not pan out as Seeger had anticipated. The Clearwater still sails and is now a nonprofit and a historical landmark with a pedagogical and social justice mission. The local Beacon Sloop Club maintains the sloop Woody Guthrie and its grassroots character, offering free sails five nights a week and sponsoring festivals throughout the year staffed entirely by volunteers. Until the end of their lives, both Toshi and Pete could be found down at the waterfront on the first Friday of every month at the Beacon Sloop Club’s Circle of Song.

The questions that Pete Seeger began to pose in the 1960s and the radical solutions he devised throughout the last fifty years of his life are particularly relevant to the present moment. Although Seeger maintained a defiant posture of resistance his entire life, he simultaneously channeled this creative energy of dissent into world-building as he and Toshi Seeger crafted and sustained a participatory, collectivist, and future-oriented eco-movement, devising imaginative arts-based environmental projects that carried forward the utopian spirit of the ’60s into the twenty-first century.

As a new ecological crisis looms, the earnestness of Seeger’s response to the destruction of the natural environment is instructive. His unflinching belief that collective human action is capable of transforming the world offers an antidote to contemporary political nihilism, and a fusion of the joy of artistic expression and political participation. As we confront industrial crises in America’s waterways once again, perhaps now is the time to consider building upon Seeger’s unrealized dream, reclaiming the rivers in our country, from the Potomac to the Ohio, the Mississippi to the Cuyahoga. As Seeger proclaimed in 1969, “If there’s hope for the human race, there’s hope for the Hudson.”