Indie folk rocker Ani DiFranco has plenty of reasons to return to the Clearwater Festival this weekend at Croton Point Park, but her 20-year friendship with festival founder and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Pete Seeger tops the list.
"I may have met him there many moons ago," says DiFranco, 41. "I'm not sure how many times I've played [Clearwater], but it's been a few now."
DiFranco says she respects how Seeger -- who lives with his wife Toshi-Aline Ota in both his childhood home in Patterson and a house in Fishkill -- started performing in 1966 to raise money for the sloop Clearwater, a floating classroom dedicated to cleaning up the Hudson River and promoting other environmental and educational initiatives.
Dubbed the country's "largest annual environmental celebration," the festival has since raised funds for a wide variety of environmental and social causes with a lineup of musicians, dancers, storytellers and other entertainers on seven stages. Since 1998, the festival has been held on the banks of the Hudson in Croton Point Park. This year's lineup includes DiFranco, Martin Sexton, Bela Fleck, Dawes, Arlo Guthrie, Josh Ritter and Joan Osborne, among others.
"Pete and Toshi and the whole Clearwater organization's endeavoring to clean up the Hudson River, and keep it clean, is a wonderful thing," says DiFranco. "And the community that's sprung up around the festival is like family to me. It's my folk family."
Living with her husband and 5-year-old daughter in New Orleans, DiFranco often ventures northeast to celebrate with Seeger. When she attended Seeger's 90th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden in 2009, she updated the lyrics to "Which Side Are You On?", which Seeger covered in 1967. What struck her most that night was when Seeger told a reporter that his greatest accomplishment was staying married to his wife and maintaining a strong family presence for more than 50 years.
"It's such a feminist response," DiFranco says. "My greatest accomplishments are my successful relationships and my happy family. The subtext being, '[Forget] all that glorification out there in the patriarchal world.' Successful relationships and happy children are a great accomplishment. I just think that just typifies how cool he is, how he will give you an answer you never thought of, no matter how much you think you knew about that question."
DiFranco, herself a feminist icon, says she isn't familiar enough with today's music scene to know if female musicians are well-represented through popular songs and their messages.
"[Regarding] feminism, it's the 21st century," she says. "I'm hoping that we think of it as not just the work of women anymore, anyway, that we see it as a tool by which we can dismantle patriarchy, which hurts all of us, men and women, together. It's just not a balanced system."
DiFranco says achieving balance can be a challenge at times, especially as a mother.
"You don't actually have [much] time to play guitar or write songs, so that's unfortunate," she said. "But, for me, if I was guilty of anything along the way, it was working too much -- spewing too much into the world, not taking enough time off, or stepping back, or refueling myself so that I had something to give. [Motherhood] is great for me. It's just what the doctor ordered: to step back ... When I walk out on stage now, I'm more grateful to be there than I have been in 10 years, because I have a balance."
As a result, however, fans might have to wait for new material.
"I just started making demos of a new song towards a new record, but, these days, it takes me three years instead of three minutes," she said. "So, don't anybody hold their breath ... It's a struggle to remain inspired. I've written 200 and some songs, and these days, I sit down and I'm like, 'OK, so what now?' I do feel like I'm searching a little bit these days for new things to write about, or at least a new way to write about an old thing."
That may not matter to her emphatic fan base, which has followed her career since she launched her own label almost 25 years ago. She says the connections she makes with her audiences continue to motivate her to tour.
"My audience is sort of not based on a radio moment or a video, it's based on that sort of long, slow, touring, live-music relationship," she says. "It's real, it's lasting, and I feel lucky ... I never had a hit; I never will. And it doesn't matter."
IF YOU GO
What: Clearwater Festival
When: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday, June 16; 9 a.m. to 8:15 p.m., Sunday, June 17; rain or shine
Tickets: $60-$200; children under 13 free with an adult
Parking: $10 for spaces at the park; $5 for a space at the Croton-Harmon train station, which includes free shuttle service to and from the festival
Info: Croton Point Park, 1A Croton Point Ave., Croton-On-Hudson; 845-236-5596; clearwater.org
SIX ACTS TO SEE
Here are six of the top acts scheduled to play this weekend's Clearwater Festival, presented in chronological order of their performance times. All below performances take place at the Rainbow Stage. For the complete schedule, visit clearwater.org.
Saturday, Jun 16
3:55-4:55 p.m.: Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band
5:15-6:15 p.m.: Joan Osborne and the Holmes Brothers
Genre: Rock, indie, blues
6:30-7:30 p.m.: Bela Fleck
Sunday, June 17
4-5 p.m.: Dawes
Genre: Rock, alternative
5:20-6:20 p.m.: Martin Sexton
6:45-8 p.m.: Ani DiFranco
Genre: Indie, folk