Clearwater: Clear Vision

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Photo by Augusto F. Menezes

You’ll look a long time to find a more wheelchair friendly place to spend a summer weekend than the Clearwater Revival Festival. If you go this year, expect both joy and sadness because they’ll be celebrating the lives of its founders, famed folk singer and activist Pete Seeger and his wife Toshi. They both passed away since last year’s festival. Seeger died in January at age 94, and Toshi, in July at 91.

“My job,” Seeger once told an interviewer, “is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.” The Seegers aimed to satisfy both goals when they began the festival in 1966. This year it takes place Saturday and Sunday, June 22-23, in Croton Point Park, Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.

From the very start, Pete and Toshi insisted that all the festival’s music venues and food and crafts booths be accessible and welcoming to people with disabilities. They succeeded to an amazing degree, but despite their efforts, not that many wheelers experience the festival. Out of an audience of some 15,000, usually only about 200 wheelchair users and people with other visible disabilities show up.

“I just think not enough of them have heard about it,” Roberta Goldberg told us. She should know. Goldberg, a T6 para and longtime member of the Clearwater’s board of directors, is also the event’s access coordinator. “We were probably the first outdoor music festival that had sign language interpreters on stage, and we had a committee specifically addressing access for people with disabilities and a real commitment to making sure attitudes were changed, not just physical access,” she points out.

Although Goldberg is a professional sign language interpreter, she’s too busy to do it at the festival. Other volunteers take care of it.

Without volunteers, the festival could not exist. There are 1,000 of them, handling everything from orienting vendors to decorating stages. As many as 150 are people with disabilities, according to Goldberg. Besides wheelchair users, they include those with intellectual, cognitive, neurological, hearing and sight impairments. “There are also a fair number of older hippies,” she adds, “dealing with the consequences of abusing their younger bodies.”

Each year Goldberg holds a meeting to clue the volunteers in on how to talk to disabled people. Attendance is mandatory. “Pete and Toshi,” she reminds them at the start, “lived their lives making sure that everyone has equal rights, is treated fairly and with respect. Part of ensuring access is in our attitudes, language and word choices. You won’t hear me say the words handicapped or crippled. Instead, we use words like disabled, or person with a disability. The Porta Johns and parking spaces are accessible, not handicapped. Phrases like differently abled or physically challenged are also not used.

“I’m 48,” she continues. “When you reach my age, physical challenges are part of daily life. We also don’t ask, ‘Can I help you?’ We assume people can take care of themselves and will ask for assistance if needed. If someone asks, by all means, do what you can to help. If you’re uncertain of what to do, ask them what is the best way to help. We have 32 access volunteers who have additional training. Don’t be afraid to call me or one of them.”

Some problems remain. “As accessible as we attempt to be,” she says, “access is still limited because we’re outdoors in a rustic county park. Despite my annual pleas to park officials, only about a quarter of the main pathways are paved. The rest are packed dirt and gravel. We hold most high-traffic activities on grassy areas that are less likely to turn into mud pits when it rains. If it does rain, we use wood chips, straw, plywood and any other material to keep things passable.”

Clearwater’s Vision and Purpose
Part of the money the festival raises goes to support the 106-foot-long sloop, Clearwater. Seeger headed the effort to build her. She’s a replica of the working sailboats — the freighters of their day — that plied the Hudson in the 18th and 19th centuries. For most of their nearly 70 years of marriage, Pete and Toshi lived in a log cabin they built on a mountain overlooking the river. Seeger treasured its beauty and majesty, but its pollution appalled him. He believed people would want to clean it up once they saw the junk in the water up close from the Clearwater’s deck.

Photo by Augusto F. Menezes

Photo by Augusto F. Menezes

He was right. As he had predicted, the sloop woke people up to the problem of river pollution. Environmentalists say Seeger’s work helped convince Congress to pass the Clean Water Act, and General Electric to begin dredging the PCBs it had dumped years ago into the Hudson. People love sailing on the sloop. Since they launched her in 1969, more than a half a million people have done it, including many wheelchair users. The Clearwater’s environmental education program annually serves more than 15,000 students and over 200 teachers.

You can take a two-hour sail on the Clearwater, or on her sister ship, the schooner Mystic Whale, during the festival. Those tickets and festival tickets are available at www.clearwaterfestival.org.  The website also gives an up-to-the-minute listing of the entertainers who will appear this year. Some who have been there in the past — many of them multiple times — include: Arlo Guthrie, Tom Paxton, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Dar Williams, The Skatalites, Ani DiFranco, Taj Mahal, Toshi Reagon, Christine Lavin, Steve Earle, Shawn Colvin, Joan Osborne, Railroad Earth, Donna the Buffalo, Buckwheat Zydeco, Jonatha Brooke, Drive-By Truckers, Indigo Girls, Josh Ritter, Suzanne Vega and Peter Yarrow.

Some of Seeger’s distinct style and repertoire came from his friendship with the legendary singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie. Years after Woody’s death, Seeger mentored his son, Arlo. He’s also helped many other young singers, including Bob Dylan and Don McLean. An admiring Bruce Springsteen called Seeger, “a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along.” Springsteen sang Woody’s classic, “This Land Is Your Land” with Seeger on television during a 2009 concert celebrating President Obama’s inauguration.

Even as an older man, Seeger had a strong, clear tenor voice. He was tall and thin and loved being on stage. He was a master of getting audiences to join him. Even if you had a terrible voice and didn’t want to, you’d find yourself singing along. He had you feeling as if you had joined him in cleaning up the river, ending racism, poverty and war. You went home believing you had helped him save the world.

Seeger broke the mold for folksingers of his generation. He didn’t pick cotton, ride the rails or work on a chain gang. He’d had a privileged childhood. Both his father and stepmother were musicologists and composers, not tenant farmers. His father’s friend, Alan Lomax, who traveled the country collecting songs for the Library of Congress, hired young Seeger to help him. And, like his father, Seeger graduated from Harvard.

He served in the Army during World War II. After that, he founded two influential folk groups, The Almanac Singers and The Weavers, a legendary group that had a string of hits in the 1950s, including “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Goodnight Irene,” “So Long It’s Been Good to Know You,” “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” and “Wimoweh.” Seeger changed some of the words of the old spiritual, “We Shall Overcome.” It became an anthem for the civil rights movement. Other classics he wrote included “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There Is a Season)” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

The Weavers’ songs were topping the charts in those days, but the quartet’s success waned in the summer of 1951. That’s when FBI leaks revealed that Seeger and two other Weavers had belonged to the Communist Party. This was the McCarthy era — the start of the nation’s red scare hysteria. The Weavers, now banned from television, broke up. Seeger went solo, playing college coffeehouses, churches, schools and summer camps. He wrote a column for a folk-song magazine and recorded many albums for the Folkways label. He was building an audience for folk, which exploded in popularity in the 1960s.

His troubles with the government weren’t over. In 1955, the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed him, demanding his testimony. Seeger refused to answer any of their questions [see below for more]. He offered to sing all the songs the committee mentioned, but they weren’t interested in that kind of singing. The committee wanted its witnesses to name names. “I feel,” Seeger told them, “that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature.”

The Justice Department indicted him on 10 counts of contempt of Congress. A court sentenced him to a year in prison, but he never served a day because another court dismissed the indictment. To his credit, Seeger never denied having been a Communist, criticizing himself for not quitting the party earlier than he had. He described himself as a “communist with a small ‘c.’” For many years after his legal problems, the John Birch Society and other right wing groups picketed his concerts and threatened him with boycotts, bombs and violence.

“All those protests did was sell tickets and get me free publicity,” he said. “The more they protested, the bigger the audiences became.”

The Clearwater Revival Festival is sure to be bigger this year than ever.


Clearwater Festival Accessibility Services:

•  Wheelchairs lent free

•  Volunteers to push wheelchairs and     provide other help

•  Areas reserved for people with disabilities at or near the front of each stage

•  First Aid tent refrigerator for medications or other items

•  SL interpreters

•  Access hospitality tent with information and resources

•  Braille and large print programs and maps

•  Accessible parking near the  festival entrance

•  Golf carts for transport to all  areas

•  Buses with lifts running t and from the train station,  and the overflow lot

•  Plug in locations to charge  power chairs or scooters

•  For more information or to  ask specific questions, please contact Clearwaterfestaccess@gmail.com


When Seeing Pete Seeger was Dangerous

My father exploded in anger when I told him that I had gone to a Pete Seeger concert in San Francisco. It was 1957 and I was 20 years old, home in Nyack, N.Y., on leave from the Air Force. Although Sen. Joseph McCarthy was through and would die that year, McCarthyism was still alive.

“The FBI could have been there taking pictures!” my dad shouted. “The pictures could haunt you for the rest of your life. Don’t you understand that?” It seems incredible today that a father could fear that his son might ruin his future by being in the audience at a folk music concert, but that was life in the 1950s.

My father was no right wing nut. He hated McCarthyism. It had ruined some of his friends’ lives and careers. He was only trying to protect me. He thought my being anywhere near Seeger was dangerous. The singer was then fighting to stay out of prison for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. (It was a fight he later won.)

He had told the Committee: “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”

Less than 10 years later I saw Seeger perform again. Once more, the circumstances were potentially dangerous. I was a reporter for the World-Telegram and Sun, a New York City afternoon daily.  The city desk sent me to cover a concert Seeger was giving at a high school in suburban Westchester County. The right-wing John Birch Society threatened to blow up the building if he appeared.

Seeger and his wife Toshi could not have been more gracious to me backstage, but it was clear that they were a little nervous. So was I. The concert went off as scheduled before an audience of brave souls. There were no explosions.

In the years since, I have seen Seeger in concert many times. Most memorably on a hot summer’s night in Nyack’s Memorial Park, close by Seeger’s beloved Hudson River. He had an unknown kid named Don McLean with him that night. I’ve sailed in my wheelchair on the Clearwater, the historic sloop replica he had built to draw attention to river pollution. I’ve wheeled around his summer Clearwater Festivals, and I’ve watched in wonder as documentary filmmakers discovered him.

Congress censured Joe McCarthy, who died a broken man. The members of the House Un-American Activities Committee are all long gone and forgotten. And why should we remember any of them? They wrote no songs, gave no concerts, built no sloops or cleaned up any rivers. They didn’t even save us from Communism.

Seeger is gone now, but back in 2009, I saw him again on TV. He was a headliner at a Washington, D.C., concert celebrating President Obama’s inauguration. When he came on stage, Bruce Springsteen and the other younger performers treated him like the national treasure he was. And no father had to fear for his son’s future because Pete Seeger was there.

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