Over the weekend I had the pleasure of reading Peter Applebome’s wonderful piece in the New York Times about the new River Pool at Beacon a swimming “pool” in the Hudson River that Pete Seeger and some friends dedicated last week.
Many people know the story of Pete Seeger, who brought American folk music to the hit parade with the Weavers in the 1950’s and was then blacklisted and banned from TV for refusing to cooperate with the communist-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). When brought before the committee in the mid 1950’s, he asserted that testifying against his will was a violation of the first amendment’s protection of free speech and refused the protection offered by the 5th amendment protection against self-incrimination. In 1957 he was indicted for contempt of Congress, was convicted of this offense and then very nearly went to jail.
Seeger was brought back to commercial network T.V. by the Smothers’ Brothers where he sang his anti-war folk song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”. The first time he sang it, CBS TV’s censors cut it out of the show. The Smothers’ Brothers then invited him to sing it a second time and it was finally broadcast. While Seeger’s advocacy always included peace and labor issues, in the late 1960’s he began to focus on the environment as well.
In fact, even before there was a federal water pollution law there was a sloop called the Clearwater. According to the Clearwater website:
“In 1966, folk singer and activist Pete Seeger had the vision that the public would come to care for all of our threatened waterways by learning to care for one boat and one river. He inspired a group of dedicated people who made the dream a reality. Launched in 1969, Clearwater serves as a moveable classroom, laboratory, stage, and forum.”
The Federal Water Pollution Control Act was passed in 1972 over then President Richard Nixon’s veto. Pete Seeger was an important voice in the chorus that demanded government action on cleaning up our water. For nearly forty years the Clearwater has continued its educational mission. It has long been a force for environmental clean-up and education in New York. When my daughters were in elementary school I was a class parent on a Clearwater voyage and it was memorable and effective. Seeger’s imagination and practical approach to education and problem solving created a lasting and important institution.
Last weekend I walked by the new Hudson River pier that looks like it will soon open in Harlem across the street from the Fairway grocery on 125th street. That park and the bike path it connects with down to Greenwich Village would not have been possible without the Hudson River clean-up that Pete Seeger helped start in the late 1960’s. What Seeger has always understood is that the way to build support for clean water is to make sure that people can experience it and enjoy it.
I think it’s true that the eight million plus people living in New York City can enjoy their lives without experiencing the rivers, oceans, mountains, deserts and countryside that still dominate our increasingly urban planet. I believe that our lives are enriched by experiencing nature, but without parks and sloops New Yorkers might never take the time to enjoy them.
Pete Seeger is a “green hero” because he knows that we need to mix advocacy with education and education with enjoyment. The joy of the breeze off the Hudson on a summer night can carry you through a slushy walk in midtown in February. The school kids that spend a few hours on the Clearwater will never see the river in quite the same way that they did before their voyage-and perhaps more importantly they will see the river the next time they look at it.
The new River Pool in Beacon is simply the latest in a long list of songs, ideas, innovations and actions invented or promoted by Pete Seeger. We owe this modest man a debt of gratitude. Think about it the next time you take a peek at the Hudson.