Story & interview by Don Wilcock
Photograph by Thomas Lindsay
Before folk music icon Pete Seeger had the Sloop Clearwater built to call attention to the need to clean up the Hudson River, he’d had little experience on the water. “(A friend) took me out at midnight sailing in a little thing called a Beetle Cat – 11 feet long, one sail – and for the first time in my life I found out why people spend millions of dollars on private sailboats,” he says. “It’s not how fast you go, but the fact that you move at all. (Sailing) is a wonderful analogy for life. You use the force of the wind against you to move against it.”
Seeger has been using society’s own negative forces to fight against them in a career that spans more than 70 years. Appearing before the House on Un-American Activities in the ’50s, he pled the first amendment instead of the fifth. “I pled the first. It says in effect you have no right to ask me this question, and nobody like you has the right to ask questions like this of anybody.”
He and his sister Peggy Seeger will celebrate his 94th birthday and the Eighth Step’s 45th at 7pm on Sunday, Mother’s Day (May 12), when the Eighth Step takes over Proctors’ Mainstage in Schenectady.
Pete Seeger is the man who made “We Shall Overcome” the mantra of the civil rights movement. He is the cohesive force that moved folk music into the general public’s consciousness, giving the genre a cause above the simple messages of artists like the Kingston Trio and Burl Ives. He has stood tall for the common man from the moment he first took the stage. Humble to the point of being mistaken for naïve, he does not consider himself a singer, but rather a song leader, and can’t believe he has the power to “fill an old movie theater with 2000 people.”
Seeger jokes about his old brain and his loss of memory, but his anecdotal recall of significant moments in history is little short of breathtaking. The development of the Sloop Clearwater is one example.
“In an hour or two around midnight, this teenager got me all fired up,” he says of that long-ago midnight sail. “I spent all of $1200 on a little plastic boat 17 feet long, and I was learning to sail on the Hudson, and I came along to certain places where there was a sewage outlet, I found myself sailing through lumps of this and that along with the toilet paper. I thought of the phrase of John Kenneth Galbraith, ‘Private affluence, pubic squalor.’ I had enough money to buy a sailboat, but I was sailing through shit.
“Then a friend of mine said, ‘Pete, you know they used to have sailboats on the river with booms 70 feet long.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘Don’t give me that. Only in America’s Cup Race was like that.’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘this book says they had 400 boats like it. They were the work horses of the river, called Hudson River sloops.’
“This book was written by two middle-aged men, middle-class men, here in Beacon, in the year 1907. One was an engineer by trade, and the other was a retied sloop captain, but there were no more jobs in 1917 for Hudson River sloops. Steam boats had taken over, and the railroad had taken other business, but in 1850 there were 400 Hudson River sloops carrying all kinds of cargo.
“They’d carry huge piles of ordinary straw maybe 15 feet high and shout at the man at the tiller, ‘Port, starboard,’ and they would get to New York and that huge pile of straw would be taken down and sold, and they might have who knows what kind of a cargo going back. It wasn’t very fast. When the tide and the wind were both with the boat, they could go as much as 10 miles per hour, and so a boat came up to Beacon, 60 miles from New York in a little over four hours, five hours, and from New York to Albany, once a sloop made it in 14 hours. However, it also could take several days, or several weeks if there were a lot of calms.
“To get through what they call the Narrows was not easy. You don’t try and sail against the tide in the East River. You sail with the tide, and it’s very dangerous sailing with the tide. You have to be very careful – likewise in the Hudson Narrows between Peekskill and Beacon. At West Point, it’s only 400 feet wide so you had to take it very sharply. You had to be very clever.
“At any rate, my friend told me about it. He said, ‘I’ve got a book about it. I’ll loan it to ya.’ He loaned me this book. I copied some of the pictures in it of Hudson River sloops and wrote a poem which I stuck up on the wall, and after two years, I couldn’t stand the temptation anymore. I wrote a long letter. I think it was two pages typewritten saying, ‘Why don’t we get a whole batch of people to learn how to sail these boats, and we’ll raise the money to build one?’
“Down in New York, they wanted $300,000, but up in Maine old Harvey Gamage had been making boats like this, sloops and schooners, for 50 years. He knew how to make ’em, and he offered a price of only $120,000, and we raised the money, or most of the money. My wife borrowed. We didn’t have $50,000 in the end when the boat was built. Harley Gammage says, ‘I’ve got to have my money, or you can’t take the boat,’ and my wife Toshi once again did the extraordinary thing. She got on the telephone to Joan Baez and a whole lot of others and borrowed the $50,000 on the promise that we’d repay it, and we took over the boat.
“Up there they said, ‘We finally found a captain, and he had golden curls to his shoulder and refused to shave them off.’ When they saw him, they said, ‘This is a captain? This boat will be sunk or sold within a year. Hippies don’t know anything about (sailing).’ Actually, he was a very good captain. We were a very amateurish crew.
“It was a crew – only one of the crew was a very good sailor, Gordon Bok of Maine, but we made foolish mistakes. Once, going down the East River, the Captain shouted, ‘Back the jib.’ And we backed it for several minutes, figured, well, I guess that’s all he needed, and we let go of the jib. The captain said immediately, ‘When I say back the jib, keep it backed until I tell you to let go of it.’ He said, ‘We almost hit that rock.’”
The Clearwater has stood as a symbol and has helped perpetuate the Hudson River clean-up for 34 years. But “almost hitting a rock” has been an occupational hazard for most of Seeger’s career. He recalls an incident near his home in Peekskill in 1949. “(African American singer) Paul Robeson planned a concert. There were actually two concerts. The first one never took place. It was an evening concert. A Unitarian
couple had a small farm about two miles east of Peekskill. Robeson had sung for 200 people there one year, and the next year he sang for 500 people, and the third year they said, ‘Our farm can’t take any more people, but we’ve rented a big field on a different road. It’s about a mile and a half north of Peekskill, and we’ve rented 1,000 wooden chairs, and there’ll be a committee to set them up and set up a little stage big enough for a piano.’
“I was supposed to sing three songs at the beginning of the concert, and I drove my 60-year-old mother there, but there was a traffic jam. We couldn’t get through. Finally I saw a tall policeman, and I shouted, ‘Officer, can you get me through? I’m singing here tonight.’ And he shot a strange glance at me and shouted back, ‘There’s not going to be any concert’ and strode off. And I didn’t know why or how.
“The traffic jam was still stuck there, so we turned around on the grass and drove home, and the next day we found out that a mob had come in and attacked Howard Fast, the great writer who was kind of in charge of 10 or 15 people who set up the 1000 wooden folding chairs in rows and bolted together a small stage and put together a small public address system.
“The mob attacked him, and he and the other members of the committee retreated to the stage, singing ‘We Shall Not Be Moved.’ And the mob burned up the chairs, and then they started to move on the stage. There’s a policeman there, who had been watching the whole thing, and he suddenly realized people were going to be murdered, so he shouted, ‘Everybody go home. EVERYBODY go home!’ And Howard and the committee were allowed to get back on their bus or whatever it was, and they went back south, while the mob burned up the stage and smashed the PA system.
“At any rate, Robeson got on the air. He says, ‘It’s America. I have a right to sing. I will sing!’ There was a big gathering at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. I was there. About 5,000 people were there, and Robeson said, ‘We’ll have it in the afternoon one week from today.’ And several thousand union members came, and this time we all just sat on the ground. I took two babies. We had a three-year-old and a one-year-old then, and my wife’s father said, ‘You sure it’s safe?’ And I said, ‘They can’t do what they did last week, not after all this publicity.’
“And I was right. They didn’t do what they did last week. They did something different, worse. We all went in. There was a crowd at the gates shouting things like, ‘Go back to Russia, Kikes, n—– lovers,’ but the police kept them at bay. And with all the publicity, there were about 10 or 15,000 people there, and we all sat on the ground. I think about eight or 10 men stood in back of Robeson, and on his left and his right because the field had three sides of it surrounded by woods, and there was danger of a sniper getting in the woods and trying to kill him.
“And I sang three songs in the beginning. I think “If I Had A Hammer’ was one of them. We had just written it. Then, I’ve forgotten the name of the piano player, but he played that Prokofiev sonata of some sort, and then Robeson got on and sang for an hour, and he left the stage, went directly forward, walked down the aisle between the applauding crowd and got into a car. He walked through the car, and got out the
other side of it and got into another car and actually got out of that one too and ended up getting into a van, so he was one of the first cars leaving.
“Now, he was told to lie on the floor so he wouldn’t be visible, and they wouldn’t be sure which car he was in, and he got out safely. We weren’t in a hurry to go home. I remember it was about an hour after the (concert). The people slowly left and got in their cars. They all parked them on the field. It was a huge field, about five acres, I guess at least.
“Anyway, our family got up to the gate. We wanted to turn left because we live north of Peekskill, but the policeman said, “No, all cars go to the right,’ and so we went down to Peekskill, so we could drive north from there, but around the corner was a pile of stones about waist high, each stone about as big as a tennis ball, and a young man was throwing them with all his force at every single car.
“It was a twisted little road, and when we turned to the left, now there was a pile of stones to the right and another young man throwing them. There must have been 10 or 15 piles of stones because we had a Jeep station wagon, and all three windows on the sides were broken and a divided windshield, too – they were both broke. So there must have been at least 10 piles of stones, and I think there were more. Two stones
actually went through the glass and landed on the floor of the car. I cemented them into the chimney of a fireplace I was building.
“A policeman was standing only about 40 feet beyond the stone thrown. I jammed on the breaks and tried to roll the window down, but it was so splintered I could only get it about an inch down, and I shouted, ‘Officer, aren’t you going to do something?’ And he just shouted, ‘Move on! Move on!’
“It came out later that there were Ku Klux Klan chapters up and down the Hudson, and they were involved. Oh, some pro-Nazi Germans at a local lake called Lake Valhalla were also involved, and it was a carefully planned attack. I was told that the police department was infiltrated by the Klan and others. They had signs printed in advance, and the moment that afternoon was over, these signs appeared all through Peekskill, thousands of them. They were the size of a bumper sticker about 20 inches wide and six inches high, and the top line said, ‘Wake up America’ and underneath ‘Peekskill did.’ And in Europe when they saw it, they said, ‘Those are the same signs that went up after Kristalnacht in Germany. “Wake up, Germany. Munich did.”’
“And I only a few years ago realized this was like an inoculation for America. You know when you get a needle in your arm, your arm gets a case of smallpox. The rest of your body gets alerted and does not get smallpox, and this is exactly what happened. Peekskill had a case of Fascism there, but the rest of the country saw the pictures on TV and in local newspapers and mothers with babies in their arms and blood streaming down, and it was not a pretty picture. The rest of the country said, ‘We don’t like this.”’
In 1963, Dylan sang cryptically about what was “blowin’ in the wind.” In 1969, Seeger showed Dylan what it was.
“I think the arts will be among the most important things that save us,” he says today. “Words can mean different things to different people and numbers can, but all the arts, the visual arts, the dancing arts, the cooking arts, the human arts, the sports arts, Joe Dimaggio leaping for a fly ball had all the grace of a ballet dancer, and who knows?