Those of us who are passionate about restoring and preserving the health of the Indian River Lagoon owe a greater debt than many may realize to a tall, thin man in jeans and flannel shirt, with a big smile beaming through a scraggly beard, and carrying a five-string banjo slung over his shoulder.
Pete Seeger, whose own passion for his beloved Hudson River helped launch environmental awareness and activism, died last week at age 94.
Younger generations may only know Seeger, if at all, by the songs he popularized and that have become grade school standards, such as This Land is Your Land and If I Had a Hammer, Jacob’s Ladder, and Michael Row the Boat Ashore.
Older generations may remember the controversial troubadour, blacklisted for his brief association with the Communist Party as a staunch supporter of labor unions, a Vietnam War protester and singer of Where Have All the Flowers Gone? and Waist Deep in the Big Muddy. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr., and his version of We Shall Overcome became the anthem for the nation’s civil rights movement.
They are all part of the modest though powerfully influential leader, the Harvard dropout and folklorist who President Bill Clinton described as “an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them.”
I met Seeger briefly many years ago at a folk festival and joined with others in the audience — as he always demanded of his audiences — by singing along with him on Kisses Sweeter Than Wine and Guantanamera and many others.
For all he tried to do to lift up the Average Joe and poke his finger in the eye of the powerful, his greatest lasting legacy may be his dedication, as he described it, as a “river singer.”
Before there was a name given to “environmentalist,” before there was Earth Day or the Clean Water Act, there was Pete Seeger in the log cabin he built overlooking the Hudson River shortly after World War II.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Hudson River had become a cesspool, with companies dumping toxic waste and governments pouring raw sewage into the river and killing much of the life in it.
Most people believed the Hudson was beyond saving, that the people were no match for the polluters, but not Seeger. In the late 1960s, he raised money through concerts and loans and had a sailing ship built as a floating classroom and concert stage to promote the cleanup of the Hudson.
In 1972, that 106-foot Hudson River Sloop Clearwater sailed from the Hudson to Washington, D.C., where Seeger delivered petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of people in support of clean water legislation. He also held an impromptu concert for members of Congress and their staffs. A few weeks later, the nation’s Clean Water Act was adopted.
Among those who spent time with Seeger aboard the Clearwater was a commercial fisherman named John Cronin. Adopting Seeger’s passion for the Hudson, Cronin later became the first Hudson Riverkeeper, a citizen advocate for the health of the waterway. That was the birth of the Riverkeeper movement, which now has Riverkeepers in more than 180 locations, including our own looking out for the Indian River Lagoon.
About the time the Clearwater began its journeys up and down the Hudson and setting an example for environmental education and action, Seeger wrote a song called My Dirty Stream. It begins, Sailing down my dirty stream/Still I love it and I'll keep the dream/That some day, though maybe not this year/My Hudson River will once again run clear.
Seeger lived to see the river transformed in large part because of his advocacy. And, he helped to give others the tools to battle for the health of their own waterways.
As we advocate for the Indian River Lagoon, we owe him a deep debt of thanks for opening eyes and changing minds about what people can do by working together for the common good.
Our environment is better and can be better still because of the foundation he gave us all.
©2014 the Treasure Coast Newspapers (Stuart)
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