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A Milestone Clearwater Festival Brings Big Moments

Photo via Steve Kelman

by Steve Kelman
The weather gods smiled on the first day of the 42nd annual Clearwater Festival recently held at Croton Point Park in Croton on Hudson, New York. Abundant sunshine, seasonally warm temperatures, refreshing river breezes, not to mention terrific scenery courtesy of the Hudson River, all provided the backdrop to a full day of crafts, storytelling, dancing, environmental activism and education, children’s activities, food, and great music.
“This has been a banner year for Clearwater,” Clearwater Board President Stephen D. Smith wrote in his welcome letter, published in the festival program. “(It is) the fiftieth anniversary of the launching of the sloop Clearwater and the one hundredth year since the birth of our founder Pete Seeger.”
The festival’s origins date back to May 17th of 1969, when the sloop, a living replica of the type of Dutch vessel that sailed the Hudson in the 18th and 19th centuries, was launched from South Bristol Maine. In its first year, the sloop’s crew began to collect signatures at stops along the river calling for better protection of the country’s waterways. Then in April of 1970, Seeger and the crew sailed to Washington D.C. and organized a Capitol Hill forum on the need for federal clean water protections, thus playing an important role in the creation of the 1972 Clean Water Act.

The festival now

At Clearwater, one never runs out of things to do or music to see as there are eight stages with continuous entertainment from the moment the festival opens at 11a until the last act finishes performing at around 8p.
In between, festival patrons can easily move between stages, check out a Handcrafters Village (where some vendors performed live demonstrations of creating their works), visit an activist area where organizations such as Riverkeeper, Oxfam America, Sierra Club Lower Hudson, and the War Resister League all host information tables, enjoy an artisanal food and farmers market, even book a sail on either the Clearwater or the sailing sloop Woody Guthrie.
There is a Green Living Expo tent which touts environmental innovations, a children’s play area, and a food court offering everything from ice cream to falafels to grass fed beef hot dogs and burgers.
For many people coming to the festival, it is the high point of their year, including Lisa Stiller from Portland, Oregon. “This will be my 15th year at Clearwater,” she said during the opening Pete Seeger tribute. “I grew up on Pete Seeger and the Weaver’s music and I’m drawn back here every year just for this festival. I just love the way this festival brings people together.”


Musically, the festival brought together Tom Chapin, Josh White Jr., David Amram, The Mammals, Deadgrass, Mavis Staples, and many others. The Sunday lineup included Tom Paxton, Zen Trixters, the Del McCoury Band, Railroad Earth, and The Wailers. There were also Native American artists such as Joanne Shenandoah and professional storytellers (there was an area dedicated to storytelling called Story Grove) such as Master Storyteller Jonathan Kruk on the bill.
During The Mammals’ set on the Rainbow Stage, Ruth Ungar, who is the group’s guitarist and fiddler, performed her father’s piece, “Ashokan Farewell.” The tune was used in the Ken Burns’s PBS documentary on the Civil War. Ruth’s father, Jay, and his wife Molly Mason were scheduled to perform at the festival Sunday. The group Deadgrass performed bluegrass driven music written and/or performed by the Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garica. I particularly enjoyed their version of Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” which morphed in the Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias.”
A river blessing ceremony took place late in the afternoon featuring Shenandoah, along with White Jr. and Amram. Only a small group of people however gathered to listen to the trio (White on guitar, Amram on a Native American flute, and Shendandoah on a drum) as they performed a musical blessing for the Hudson River and its surrounding environment and wildlife.
Storyteller Jonathan Kruk, who performed several times throughout the day, including a solo performance that he titled “Supernatural on the Hudson,” said that he “loved being able to set my stories right here (in the area of Croton Point Park).”
“I told everything from the sleeping giant that woke up and formed the Hudson River to the legend of the Headless Horseman,” he said. “I also told a Native American tale about a monster that poisoned the river and gave warning that the river needed to be kept clean.” Kruk performs throughout the region, was recently featured on The Travel Channel and is known for his dramatic telling of the Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol.
Commenting on the current political situation no doubt, festival headliner Mavis Staples greeted her audience by saying, “We need to get busy, there is work to be done.” Her opening tune was the Staples Singer’s classic “If You’re Ready Come Go With Me.Staples, who turns 80 this year, told the assemblage that she was “here to bring good vibrations and inspiration.” She performed several new selections, and she did just that.

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