Thirty years ago, a small group of clean-water enthusiasts, including American balladeer Pete Seeger, put together a Sunday picnic to start work on cleaning up the Hudson River. This year, the Clearwater Great Hudson River Revival Festival attracted more than 12,000 participants last weekend.
"If I see that people are participating, then I consider it a success," Mr. Seeger says, seated in the performers' area, bouncing granddaughter Penny on his knee.
Spread out on the wooded Hudson Valley campus of Westchester Community College in Valhalla, N.Y., the festival's atmosphere combines a music revival mixed with a block party. "We've always gotten a good family crowd," Seeger adds, handing Penny to Toshi, his wife of 52 years.
For 12 years, the Hudson Valley Folk Picnic raised money to restore and operate the Sloop Clearwater, a full-size replica of the early wooden ships that traveled the Hudson. The boat now stops along the riverbank at towns where more than 15,000 schoolchildren, as well as adults, learn about environmental issues each year. That one-day, noon-to-dusk event in 1965 has expanded.
"It was music-centered, but gradually we've broadened it to include more dancing, more arts and crafts, some wonderful exotic foods, as well as exhibits. And, of course, ice cream," Seeger says.
At this year's festival, children held a cardboard "cloud" over a solar panel to control the flow of a water fountain, sat enthralled as they listened to Japanese folk tales, or threw water balloons during a riotous children's show.
All the while, from 11 a.m. until just before sunset, all kinds of music rolls out from under seven striped-tent stages, filling the air with the rousing sounds of rural bluegrass, the sway of Zydeco, old-fashioned tunes from the 1940s, old and new folk songs, hot Latino rhythms, and cool jazz. Past events have featured a range of artists, from Suzanne Vega and Livingston Taylor to Marilyn Horne. The first-night audience this year clapped their hands to the magnetic performance of Richie Havens.
But the upbeat feeling wafting through the towering pines doesn't obscure the serious nature of the organizers' mission. Alarmed by attempts to roll back the Clean Water Act of 1972, Clearwater volunteers circulate with petitions and information.
"I can go swimming in the Hudson now, and we couldn't have done that 25 years ago. And it's because of our crazy boat," Seeger chuckles. "People all over the country are putting on waterfront festivals." And the use of boats to teach has also spread. "The Lady Baltimore on the Chesapeake," he continues, "and the Challenge - I think that's its name - in Lake Michigan, and a schooner on Long Island Sound, they're all trying to do what the Clearwater does. All sorts of things get started when people get together."
The recipient of two lifetime achievement awards in 1994 - the Kennedy Center award and the National Endowment for the Arts national medal - Seeger still tours, doing concerts and benefits. And for the last few years, he has been joined on stage by his grandson, Tao Rodriguez, who carries on the musical legacy.
Tao is a festival veteran. "I've been a volunteer since I was 9," he says. An avid musician, he plays guitar and percussion. "There are tons of young people here. They love the idea of the festival as much as I do. But for me, the ultimate is just to play with Grandpa."
Seeger hopes that future festivals can include even more diversity, "maybe more jazz, Latin music, and classical music, and more people who disagree." Through six decades of activism, songwriting, organizing, musical expression and travel, Seeger remains involved. "I like to tell people that the hope of the world is hundreds of millions of little organizations who disagree about a lot of things, but agree on a few, like: It's better to talk than shoot. And when words fail, as they often do, try dancing, humor, or strawberry shortcake."
Onstage for his final appearance of the weekend, he and Tao are joined by David Amram and Odetta for "One Blue Sky Above Us." Seeger humbly receives a standing ovation from the thousands covering the green hillside who share his sense of harmony.