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Walking the Talk; Singing the Song
how the Clearwater organization is inspiring a new generation of environmental leaders by Jamaine Bell

It’s June again, with its summer sun and warm breezes, bringing the Clearwater organization’s 41st Great Hudson River Revival to the shores of Croton-on-Hudson, where 20,000 people will come to experience the beautiful grace of the majestic river sloops, the Clearwater and the Mystic Whaler. Also on hand will be be top name musical performers such as Steve Earle and Shawn Colvin, thousands of Clearwater volunteers, and environmental educators giving the festival goers a two day celebration of music, story-telling, and dance, as well as hands-on learning about the river and its ecology. Many people have attended the festival every year since the beginning, returning year after year to celebrate the river. Others will come for the first time and will leave the Revival inspired with a vision for a cleaner future.

The Great Hudson River Revival was started in the mid-1960s as a way to raise money to build the sloop Clearwater, a replica of the Dutch sailing vessels that plied the Hudson River waters in the 1800’s. The idea to build the sloop was a brainchild of folk-singer and activist Pete Seeger and his friend, Vic Schwartz, to showcase the beauty and majesty of the Hudson River and to raise awareness of its extreme pollution, which over the years had left the river dying and almost dead. They hoped that once people were on the river, experiencing it up close and seeing the pollution first hand, they would leave ready to take action.

But first, Pete and Vic needed the money to build the sloop. Pete, with his understanding of the power of song and celebration, started holding concerts up and down the river, passing the banjo around to collect money. As awareness grew of their plans, the concerts became larger and more people became involved in the need to clean and protect the river and its fragile ecosystem.

In 1969, the sloop Clearwater was completed, launched in Maine, and sailed to New York City. A folk song, “Hey Looka Yonder (It’s the Clearwater),” was written by Tom Winslow for the occasion. With the sloop ready, the Clearwater organization started gathering signatures demanding that Congress pass laws to clean up the nation’s waters. Pete Seeger and the Clearwater crew sailed the sloop to Washington, DC in 1972 while Congress was debating the Clean Water Act and personally delivered the petition with its hundreds of thousands of signatures to Congress. They then proceeded to hold an impromptu concert in the halls. The Clean Water Act passed a few weeks later.

Since then, the Clearwater organization has worked tirelessly to bring justice to the river, its environment, and to the people living around it. Clearwater has fought and is still fighting to get the PCBs dredged from the river, left over from decades of polluting by General Electric. The dredging case itself has been ongoing for decades. The first phase of that project was completed in 2009 and review board hearings are currently taking place, with Clearwater’s environmental action director, Manna Jo Greene, actively involved to ensure that the job is completed to satisfaction. As she explains, “I think that’s a measure of Clearwater’s dedication and persistence—that we don’t just cast the line, go home and retire—we see these projects through to completion.”

Clearwater is also involved with several other issues involving the Hudson River, including fighting the reinstatement of the Indian Point nuclear power plant certification, as well as newer projects involving watershed management of streams and rivers that feed into the Hudson River, and environmental justice of the disenfranchised populations that live in its system, both human and non-human. As an example of the latter, Clearwater led the charge on a carcass removal program on the part of the train lines that run alongside the river, which has brought back the number of eagles nesting along the Hudson River by reducing the eagle population’s train fatalities.

Clearwater’s approach to creating change is unique and involves blending activism with education and celebration. For Clearwater, the education is best achieved through direct experience, by going out on the sloops and learning about the river and its ecosystem first hand. As Jeff Rumpf, Clearwater’s executive director likes to say, “It’s no child left inside.” Thousands of people, from grade school age to ‘golden’ age, have experienced and learned about the river in this way.

The celebration element is also vitally important, with the yearly Revival the big annual event. Music has played an important part in getting people involved with the organization from the very beginning. As Pete Seeger has said, “Songs are sneaky things; they can slip across borders.” By engaging people through direct experience, with the sloops and the musical celebrations, Clearwater has found success and support. Their membership, which numbers in the tens of thousands, helps further the organization’s aims not only with the membership dollars, but also as evidence of the organization’s presence as the “voice” of the people. And Clearwater’s membership has seen a big increase in the past three years, due perhaps to, as Jeff Rumpf puts it, “people becoming more disenfranchised from top down government leadership and its problems.” He sees the vacuum being filled by local action.

Last year, in 2009, Clearwater had its biggest celebration yet—Pete Seeger’s all-star 90th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden, with performers like Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews among others there to celebrate with Pete. As with the birthday celebration, the yearly Revival draws top name performers who all volunteer to help Clearwater keep its mission going. This year’s list of hundreds of great performers includes Steve Earle, Shawn Colvin, Joan Osborne, and Pete Seeger himself, performing with a very special ensemble that has been his part of his newest project, “The Power of Song.” Jeff Rumpf explains that the Clearwater organization is looking toward the future by educating and activating the next generation of environmental leaders. “The Power of Song” project involves Pete and others working with high school and college age people interested in activism through songs and songwriting.

The mission of the Clearwater organization is to directly involve people in taking responsibility for their environment, to educate them, inspire them to action. This approach has lead Clearwater “alumni” into leadership roles in the environmental movement. Top officials in state and local governmental agencies, such as the Department of Environmental Conservation, the local Environmental Protection Agency and the Estuary Program were all activated by Clearwater. Jeff Rumpf explains that one of the mantras of the organization is, “When the people lead, the government will follow.” According to Jeff, “We have to have people organized and inspired, educated, and ready to take action for our democracy to work well.”

Clearwater’s methods and mission are a blueprint for other groups to follow. There are now over ten “Clearwater” organizations around the country, in other rivers and in the Puget Sound. Recently, a group in Guatemala called on Clearwater for advice in setting up a similar organization. And it all started with a couple of people with an idea, a ship, a passion and a song, with unimaginable results. That’s truly an inspiration.


For information on the Great Hudson River Revival, held on June 19th and 20th in Croton-on-Hudson, NY, visit www.clearwater.org/festival/



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