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Clearwater Festival celebrates 35th anniversary as The Great Hudson River Revival

The Sloop Clearwater sails in the background of

The Sloop Clearwater sails in the background of the Hudson Stage at the 2012 Clearwater Festival at Croton Point Park in Croton-on-Hudson. (June 16, 2012) Photo Credit: John Meore

Singer-songwriter Dar Williams knows how captivating the music and the water can be at the Clearwater Festival. "You can't go to Croton Point Park and not fall in love with the Hudson River," said Williams, a Cold Spring resident and a recurring festival performer.

The love of the river is what spurred folk legend Pete Seeger to launch the nomadic "Folk Picnics" in the late 1960s as a way of cleaning up the polluted Hudson. This year, Seeger and about 20,000 others will gather June 15-16 to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the festival's rebirth as The Great Hudson River Revival, and its roots in Croton Point Park.

From its humble beginnings, the event has developed into the country's premier environmental celebration while holding fast to its original spirit.


In 1966, Seeger announced plans to build a ship to bring attention to the contaminated Hudson River. The Putnam County native and Fishkill resident played several fundraising concerts, known as Folk Picnics, along the river, and the contributions he collected helped build the Sloop Clearwater. The ship became a national symbol of environmental advocacy, and led to the founding of the nonprofit Clearwater organization.

Seeger's annual concert series attracted well-known musicians such as Don McLean and Arlo Guthrie, and grew in popularity. In 1978, Phil Ciganer, owner of the venerable music venue Towne Crier Cafe (which recently ended its 25-year lease in Pawling), came aboard as the festival's first director.

Ciganer set schedules for performances and added additional stages to the Folk Picnics, which have grown to seven today. Perhaps the most significant change Ciganer made was moving the concerts, which had taken place in a variety of river towns, to a permanent spot in Croton Point Park overlooking the river, which in turn gave the festival a new name: The Great Hudson River Revival.

Besides Seeger, the rechristened concert included notable folk artists such as Elizabeth Cotten, Steve Goodman, Guthrie and Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Ciganer said he also brought in "musicians that represented every continent."

"We're a big melting pot here," said Ciganer, who served as festival director for four years. "And we should have an event that represents the area we live in."


Steve Lurie, the festival's current director, has continued to offer a diverse roster of artists. Even though its roots are traditional American folk music, Lurie said he views Clearwater "as a folk festival, but with a very global perspective."

Lurie has brought in artists such as West African musicians Tinariwen and the Israeli group Balkan Beat Box -- groups that might not be likely to play such large venues. "I feel like from a presenter's point of view that I have a responsibility to educate the audience, to an extent ... by presenting acts that they may have never heard of or seen, that are culturally significant," he said.

Organizers also aim for a multigenerational appeal. Lurie noted that the festival's main demographic are the people who have been attending for several decades, some from its birth. But he said that for the festival to continue to resonate, it has to appeal to people of all ages.

Toshi Reagon, a folk musician who has performed at past festivals and is the goddaughter and namesake of Seeger's wife, agrees. "In order for anything to exist for a long time, it'd have to be accessible to young people, and add a creative space for them and their voices," she said. "Eventually those young people have to become the center of the movement."


From the beginning, the festival has been powered by a large base of volunteers, a number that today has swelled to a well-organized "peace corps" of 1,000. Jeff Rumpf, executive director of the Clearwater nonprofit, said he feels gratified when he sees "someone at the festival bring their grandchildren, and volunteer with them."

And appealing to a younger generation goes hand in hand with Clearwater's mission of embracing green living and sustainability.

"In the old days, you almost always would protest businesses at Clearwater, ones that were doing the wrong thing," Rumpf said. "And this year we're celebrating local businesses [such as] solar power and renewable energy. ... It's not just what we protest anymore, it's about how we build our lives and live our lives. ... You can see it's a microcosm of a better world at that festival."


Even as Clearwater has broadened its goals of environmental awareness and activism, the festival is still very much tied to the Hudson River, the reason for its existence.

The festival was held at Croton Point Park for its first 10 years before relocating to Westchester Community College in Valhalla. In 1998, the event returned to the park, where it's been held ever since.

"It is such a gorgeous setting for this festival in terms of the connection with the Sloop Clearwater and the banks of the Hudson River," Lurie said, "For that connection, I don't think there's a better place in Westchester for it."

Williams, who is not performing at this year's festival, said the festival's proximity to the river reminds attendees that it needs to be protected. "And I think that was always a missing piece of the festival until they got to Croton," she said.

As Rumpf reflected on the event's past 35 years, his thoughts turned toward the man who inspired the festival, who turned 94 last month.

"It's a very special anniversary for us," Rumpf said. "And if you see Pete, Pete is on fire. He's like a young man. He sees that his work is going to live on."

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