Clearwater Festival Cancelled for 2016

Sad news out of Beacon, New York … at a meeting on January 20, the Clearwater environmental group’s board of directors voted to cancel the 2016 annual festival, the Great Hudson River Revival. There are also lots of questions about concerning the future direction of the Clearwater due to a severe financial crisis. Board members expressed hope that the festival will return in 2017 if they can work their way out of the financial crisis.

An audience shot from the Rainbow Stage at the HRR.The festival began in 1966 as a “folk picnic” held by Pete Seeger and friends to draw attention to the growing environmental issues and to build community. In 1978, the Great Hudson River was formally launched as an annual festival in New York’s Westchester County. The festival’s home is Croton Point Park in Westchester county in New York State, although the fest was moved to Westchester Community College for a brief period when the ground at the original park location was found to be contaminated. Each year, thousands of people attended the two day event which featured diverse lineups of music and environmental displays. The feeling of the “folk picnic” carried over even as the festival grew.

Pete Seeger, Hudson River Activist (Photo by Dona Crawford)

Pete Seeger, Hudson River Activist (Photo by Dona Crawford)

The Hudson River Sloop Clearwater Inc. is an organization that was inspired by the late Pete Seeger with the launch of the sloop in 1969. Since that first sail and formation of the organization, the Clearwater has become one of the leading grass roots environmental groups and their work has shown tangible results. The Hudson River is noticeably cleaner as more people became aware of the issues over the decades. Pete Seeger’s original idea for the sloop and the organization was to bring people to the river to witness the environmental problems that were plaguing the Hudson River. Over the years thousands of school children and adults alike have sailed on the sloop and learned about the pollution that was destroying the river. People have become concerned and involved and their work helped pass legislation such as the Clean Water Act.

The Clearwater had three main sources of funds – money raised from sails on the sloop, membership dues, and the annual festival. The festival was always a risky proposition, dependent on weather and other circumstances as to the amount of money it would make, or lose. The annual budget for Clearwater is reported to be $2 million dollars, and it is estimated that the festival cost $900,000 to stage. It was also reported that the 2015 festival only reaped $31,000 in profit, and the risk of a loss in 2016 lead the board of directors to vote to cancel this year’s event.

Sloop sailing on the horizon.The actual boat, the sloop Clearwater, is in the midst of an $850,000 restoration. The organization is planning to run a series of concerts this year as part of a fund raising campaign. The 106 foot boat was built in 1969 through the work of Pete Seeger and some committed friends who desired to build a replica of the boats that sailed the Hudson River in the 18th and 19th centuries. Powered by their sails, these boats carried cargo up and down the river in the days before the steamship.

I‘ve had questions about the festival lineup over the past few years, my own feeling is that the organizers of the event grew out of touch with the community that built and inspired the organization and started looking mainly for artists that would draw crowds – and that is not necessarily a bad thing if you are trying to raise money and awareness. However, the festival was always a learning experience. This was NEVER meant to solely be a music festival, and certainly not specifically a FOLK festival – it was a festival about the environment and designed to bring people to the river. That part worked. Pete was always a supporter of diversity in music and the arts, but I’m not sure if recent years have accomplished what he initially instilled in the organization.

Let’s hope they find a way. There are plenty of music fests, but there is only one Hudson River and that boat needs to keep sailing.

Pete atop Clearwater Sloop

About Ron Olesko

For over 40 years, Ron has been a radio programmer with WFDU-FM in Teaneck, New Jersey. He created WFDU-FM's TRADITIONS in 1980, a show that he continues to host and produce every Sunday afternoon from 3 to 6pm Eastern Time. He's the president of and booker for the Hurdy Gurdy Folk Music Club in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and is a regular contributor to Sing Out! as well as the host of the Folk Music Notebook blog on this site. Ron can also be found emceeing concerts and festivals around the NYC/NJ area. A lifelong Mets fan and a rabid soccer geek, Ron is a Red Bull season ticket holder since their inception and will most likely be in his seat when not in the studio.


Clearwater Festival Cancelled for 2016 — 4 Comments

  1. Echoing concerns about how the festival was run, I do know that they alienated the Yonkers kayak club. For many years we offered free kayaking at the festival with dozens of volunteers from the club and provision of kayaks for festival goers to give people a fun experience on the river. We finally backed out because the organizers wanted to treat us as a “vendor” charging us as if we were there to make money. Sometimes when you try squeezing people for money you end up loosing out.

  2. The ticket/admission prices for the past couple of years were daunting…even for a one-day “let’s-check-this-event-out” pass.. How many potential patrons were dissuaded by the fees, would be my question.

  3. Sad indeed. As a longtime Clearwater supporter and participant, it seems to me that the organization itself has become more and more disconnected from the community and people who built it.. All well intentioned of course on all sides, but this feels like a serious blow. I’ll miss being there very much! Thanks for the article, Ron