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.
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.
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.
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.