Pete Seeger's greatest legacy after a long life filled with music and activism may have been saving the Hudson river, according to those who worked with him to save the waterway.
“The Hudson was saved by a lot of people,” said Robert Kennedy Jr, who has sued industry for polluting the river as an environmental lawyer for the Waterkeeper Alliance. He said he had known Seeger for 30 years.
“But for a lot of us, Pete was the first guy. He started the train, and we all jumped on the moving train.”
Seeger's environmental activism didn't stop with the river. Last September, he put in a surprise appearance with Willie Nelson and Neil Young at a Farm Aid benefit. He added an extra verse to his anthem “This land was made for you and me” by singing: “This land was made to be frack-free.”
The folk singer also campaigned for the shutdown of the aging Indian Point nuclear reactor.
But it was the Hudson river – close to where Seeger lived in a log cabin he built himself in the 1940s – that was the main focus of his activism.
The river was a raging sewer when Seeger set out to save it in the 1960s, a liquid dump for industries that grew along its banks, full of PCBs from the electrical industry, sewage discharges, pesticides, and other contaminants. The main traffic was cement and oil barges. The public largely stayed away.
Local lore has it the chemical stew was so potent and so toxic it was seen as a cure for bore worms and other parasites feeding off wooden hulls. Sailors from the Caribbean would reportedly come up to cleanse their boats.
Seeger, with his late wife, Toshi, built his own 19th-century wooden sloop, the Clearwater, and as he sailed the river, he began asking commercial fishermen to work with him to bring the river back.
The boat would later turn into an environmental organisation, which remains active today.
His genius was in recognising that the salvation of the river could come from grassroots activism, Kennedy said.
“He didn't go to Albany and lobby. He didn't go to Washington, and he didn't go to court. He used his guitar and his voice and his joyful manner to summon people,” he said.
The strategy turned on reminding people of the Hudson's history as a major water way, and an important fishery.
Seeger walked the banks of the river, talking to locals and trying to persuade them that it would one day be possible to swim in the Hudson again.
He wrote a song about the river called Sailing Up My Dirty Stream: “Some day, though maybe not this year / My Hudson river will once again run clear.”
And remarkably, the effort to save the Hudson worked. Under public pressure, PCBs were banned in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency designated a 200-mile stretch of the Hudson as a clean-up site. In 2001, the EPA embarked on another monumental project to dredge the river for sediment contaminated by PCBs. That project is ongoing.
“Pete saw the Hudson as an emblem of some of the failures of our democracy because it was taken over by large corporations who were using it as a conveyor for disposal,” Kennedy said. “But he always pointed out that the constitution of New York state said the Hudson was owned by the people of New York state,” he went on. “He used to say the Hudson river belongs to all of us.”