Hudson Valley legend recalled by locals
BY CHERYL SLAVIN
Pete Seeger, the world-renowned folk artist who, through the power of music, spread social gospel to generations of Americans, has died at the age of 94. He performed on the world stage, but he lived and worked all his adult life in the Hudson River Valley, a neighbor, friend and colleague to many who remember him as humble, down-to-earth and possessed of an unshakeable integrity.
Well known for his activism for workers’ rights, pacifism and the environment, as well as for his affiliation with the Communist Party in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Seeger is locally hailed as the man who took a boat out onto the Hudson River and launched one of the largest industrial clean-ups to this day.
“Many of the local fishermen are very conservative,” notes fellow musician and lifelong friend David Amram, “but they love Pete, because he cleaned up the river. He transcended politics, was way more than ‘left’ against ‘right;’ he was on the side of all people.”
“Pete spoke truth to power,” recalls Manna Jo Greene, environmental director for the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, the environmental organization Seeger founded in 1966. “He stood up for what he believed was right for people and the planet, sometimes under extreme disapproval, but he always did it with love, and allowed the truth to speak for itself.”
“My father used to tell us that swimming in the Hudson was like swimming in a sewer,” recalls George Potanovic Jr., president of Stony Point Action Committee for the Environment. “But not only did Pete start the Hudson River revival, he started a national environmental movement as well.” A professional photographer, Potanovic cherishes the photo his father, George Sr., took of the Sloop Clearwater, which Seeger also signed and named “The River Reflects.”
Many other local anecdotes attest that, regardless of his fame, Seeger never considered any gathering too small or person too insignificant for his attention.
“He would arrive at the meetings of the Beacon Sloop Club two hours early,” Greene recalls, “and build a fire before everyone else arrived just to make sure that people felt warm and welcome when they got there.”
“One time Pete was taking the day to just be with his family at the Putnam County Fair,” Amram relates. “But within minutes of arriving, he’d already picked up trash and helped wrangle a horse. And when it started to rain, Pete, Tom Chapin and I ended up giving an hour and a half impromptu concert to pass the time.”
“Twice in the last year Pete just dropped in at one of my monthly Irish seisiuns,” relates local musician Ed Packer. “It was absolutely thrilling to be able to sing with one of my heroes, even if I was also sweating bullets.”
“Once in the early ’90s,” remembers Greg Brown, another neighbor and friend, “he played for a crowd of about 35 or 40 of us in Wingdale. The county wanted to put a huge dump on farmland, woodland and swamp in our town of Patterson, NY. Pete showed up to support we who opposed it. Not a big issue. No real press in it for him, but we were his neighbors to the East and he showed up to support us.”
As with any famous person, Seeger had his detractors. As a young idealist who believed in unions and workers’ rights, he had joined the Communist Party in the 1930s; consequently the tag of “commie” followed him all of his days, even after he left the party in 1950. He was sometimes misguided in his outspoken opinions, as when he initially voiced support for the Stalin regime (which he later repudiated). He vociferously opposed the Vietnam War and visited North Vietnam in the 70’s, earning him the undying ire of many who viewed it as an act of treason.
Whatever his choices, however, Seeger always acted out of his deeply held convictions, whether it was safe working conditions and a living wage for the common man, an end to wars he believed were wrongly waged or a cleaner, healthier environment. He believed in the protection of the First Amendment, and he exercised his free speech rights through song. When questioned by Joe McCarthy in 1955, he outfoxed the famous anti-communist.
“I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion,” he told the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, “and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American.”
Ultimately, the Committee held Seeger in contempt of Congress for not answering some of their questions and not pleading the Fifth. However, Seeger had the last laugh when charges were later thrown out.
Seeger was one of the leaders of folk music in the 20th century, working closely at times with Woody Guthrie. His career helped pave the way for Bob Dylan’s celebrated career. Seeger had a number of hits and popularized some old standards such as “We Shall Overcome.” Quoting from the Book of Ecclesiastics he penned “Turn, Turn, Turn,” later readapted by The Byrds and becoming one of the biggest hits of the late 1960s.
The folk icon also was a cofounder of the annual Clearwater music festival at Croton Point Park, which attracts major headlining acts and raises money to preserve the Hudson River. Following his death, a movement has started among his fans and admirers to name the new Tappan Zee Bridge after him. How much steam the movement gains remains to be seen, but it would likely prove to be a controversial naming choice due to Seeger’s political activities and associations.