Remembering Pete Seeger and his Environmental Legacy

Launched in 1969, Pete Seeger and his allies used their sloop, named the Clearwater, to launch their successful efforts to save the Hudson River. In 2004, the Clearwater was listed on the National Registrar of Historic Places for its significance to the environmental movement. Photo by Anthony Pepitone.
Launched in 1969, Pete Seeger and his allies used their sloop, the Clearwater, to launch efforts to save the Hudson River. In 2004, the Clearwater was listed on the National Registrar of Historic Places for its significance to the environmental movement. Photo by Anthony Pepitone.

Pete Seeger is a household name for many, but like much of my generation, it was his songs I knew first. As a first grader growing up in Santa Cruz, we had a beloved teacher who would play her guitar every day and sing folk songs to us that Seeger had popularized. Our favorites included “This Land is Your Land,” “If I Had a Hammer,” and “We Shall Overcome,” tunes that often find their way into my head as I’m washing dishes or walking in the hills.

When I started working at Save The Bay, I learned Seeger’s rendition of “Seventy Miles” – a song originally written in 1965 by Malvina Reynolds.“Seventy Miles” described the decrepit state of the San Francisco Bay as a place choked with sewage and trash, and being filled at a rapid rate by developers. Here are the lyrics:

Chorus: Seventy miles of wind and spray, Seventy miles of water, Seventy miles of open bay, It’s a garbage dump.

What’s that stinky creek out there, Down behind the slum’s back stair, Sludgy puddle, sad and gray? Why man, that’s San Francisco Bay!

(Chorus)

Big Solano and the Montecell’, Ferry boats, I knew them well, Creak and groan in their muddy graves, Remembering San Francisco Bay.

(Chorus)

Joe Ortega and the Spanish crew, Sailed across the ocean blue, Came into this mighty Bay, Stood on the decks and cried, “Ole!”

(Chorus)

Fill it here, fill it here, Docks and tidelands disappear, Shaky houses on the quakey ground, The builder, he’s Las Vegas bound.
(Chorus)

“Dump the garbage in the Bay?” City fathers say, “Okay. When cries of anguish fill the air, We’ll be off on the Riviere.”
(Chorus)

Pete Seeger sung songs on a wide-variety of subjects, from supporting labor struggles to opposing war, but he also cared deeply about the state of the planet.

Seeger says he was influenced, like many, by Rachel Carson’s game-changing book, Silent Spring, which he read in installments in the New Yorker in 1962. It made him realize that even if we can build a more equitable world, it wouldn’t be worth it if future generations would inherit a pretty poisonous place to live.

As a result, Seeger, along with his wife Toshi (who he described as “the brains of the family”), spent much of his life working around environmental issues – especially in his own backyard of the Hudson River. In fact, the British newspaper the Guardian describes saving New York’s Hudson River as one of Seeger’s greatest legacies.

“The Hudson was saved by a lot of people” environmental attorney Robert Kennedy Jr. told the Guardian, “but for a lot of us, Pete was the first guy. He started the train, and we all jumped on the moving train.”

Saving the Hudson River

Like San Francisco Bay at the time, the Hudson River was a polluted mess:

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.

To do something about this, Seeger, always the optimist, started in 1969 by building a boat. That boat was named the Clearwater, and its mission was to educate people about the Hudson River environment, its history, and share a vision about what the Hudson could be if we all worked together. Imagine a river that you could swim in, catch fish in. Seeger wrote a song about it, called “Sailing Up My Dirty Stream,” with lyrics including “some day, though maybe not this year / My Hudson river will once again run clear.”

Through decades of hard work, Seeger and thousands of friends made the difference. The Hudson is swimmable and fishable again. In 1972, Seeger sailed the Clearwater down to Washington D.C. and sang to members of Congress, who shortly later passed the Clean Water Act, the landmark bill limiting pollution of our waterways. In 1980, thanks to the increased attention, the Environmental Protection Agency declared a 200-mile stretch of the Hudson River a clean-up site, and for the past decade and a half, the toxic PCBs lining the floor of the river have been dredged up.

Seeger’s group was also successful at turning an old garbage dump along the river’s edge into a park, complete with a summer swimming area for kids, and to this day, the group organizes an annual benefit concert attended by over 15,000 people. As long as there is still work to be done, the Clearwater continues to sail up and down the river, two to three times a day, educating the next generation.

Seeger’s devotedness to his waterway was a reflection of both his politics and his optimism. Like the lyrics of “This Land Is Your Land,” Seeger believed that the Hudson River “belongs to all of us,” said Kennedy. Further, Seeger believed that the best thing we can do in the face of environmental destruction at such a large scale is to focus making a difference on the places that we call home. “I tell people, work in your local community. The world’s going to be saved by people who fight for their homes,” Seeger proclaimed.

This is a viewpoint shared by activists in Redwood City working to save over two square miles of restorable San Francisco Bay salt ponds from being developed by agribusiness giant Cargill. Activist Gail Raabe echoes Seeger’s comments by saying, “It’s really easy to feel overwhelmed about all of the worldwide threats to the environment,” but “if everyone in the world took responsibility for restoring or protecting their place,” then together “we would get the job done.”