In 1966, singer Pete Seeger began plans to literally launched a project to clean up the Hudson River in New York. He and a group of supporters and workers put together a period sloop - named the Clearwater - which would sail up and down the Hudson, bringing music and a message to the folks along the waterway. The message: "Let's return the river to its former, clean, state." They funded the project through donations and sales of sails - people could (and still can) join in the fun by taking a sail up the river. And meanwhile, the whole thing inspired folks to create cleaner waterways. Getting a first-hand look at the need to keep the environment protected has made a great impact and the Hudson is looking great! The Sloop Clearwater, launched in 1969, provides an educational, enjoyable, and exciting experience that continues to inspire into the latest generations. The sloop is fashioned after those that brought goods up and down the river in the 1860s and earlier years.
I first learned about the project shortly after fund-raising began. I was in high school and followed Pete Seeger's career fairly closely (his father, Charles, was the first person I'd heard of with a PhD in folklore and so was my inspiration to get the same, which I did in 2008). For reasons I didn't understand at the time, Pete's desire to clean up that particular river (which I had never, to my recollection, ever seen and which was far away from where I lived in suburban Chicago) really touched me.
I hosted a mini-folk festival in my hometown of Wilmette, Illinois in August of 1968, sponsored by my church. The sloop had yet to make its maiden voyage and I made a plea for the proceeds of our little event to be donated to the project. The church committee turned me down for two reasons: 1) the project might never come to fruition and 2) it was not connected to our community in any way. I reluctantly chose another (local) charity to receive our small profits and sent my own donation to the Clearwater project. I was headed into my last year of high school so I imagine my donation was rather small, but it was heartfelt. (Say, if they could conquer the Hudson, maybe they could turn attention to the Chicago River next . . . or, maybe not.)
Pete had a column ("Johnny Appleseed, Jr.") in the folk music magazine Sing Out! and there he encouraged young singers and songwriters to keep messages and stories flowing in our music. At one point, he featured a number of alternate verses to Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land." Even Woody had many additional verses that never made it into the mainstream singing of his song. I had played around with the song myself and had written a verse inspired by Pete's beloved Hudson River. By that time, the Sloop had launched and I was excited to learn that the first voyages were well-received (hoping some day to have my own opportunity to witness this event). I decided to add my verse to Pete's collection (if I would be so lucky) and sent it on to him at his home in Beacon, NY. He sent me a lovely reply. That was in October 1969.
So now we fast forward to about 1978, when I began to research my family roots. It took me a number of years to trace my German immigrant ancestors to the shores of New York and their trek to a new home . . . on the shore of the Hudson River. That family (surnames: THENEE, MUELLER, WOLBERT) lived in various places in New York and New Jersey, but were rarely far from the shores of the river. Could this be why I felt such a connection to the project begun back in the 1960s? Perhaps it was an ancestral memory and my own forebears whispering to me that it was a worthwhile cause and something that required my attention. And maybe one of those people (perhaps musician, great-grandpa Fritz Mueller) was my muse when I wrote the words that were in my mind's eye, but described something I had never seen for myself. I don't know.
Here are the words:
"As I was sailing, that Hudson River
I saw around me, the tow'ring timber;
I saw beneath me, all New York's litter,
Still this land is made for you and me."
Now, I have to confess here that I had forgotten all about that verse. I have written a lot of "additional verses" to already well-done songs, often fitting a particular theme or event. Pete's little note was a nice acknowledgment, but that was about it. Life moves on.
But in my world in Illinois, I didn't know what was happening in New York. In 1971, Pete wrote an article for The Village Voice in which he details a number of alternate verses, collected over the years, for Woody's immortal song. I do not subscribe to that weekly publication out of New York, nor does anyone I know (or I am sure I would have been contacted with the information that my verse had been immortalized).
In 1973 I moved from Illinois to California and was busy with work, a divorce, a remarriage, a conversion to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, getting myself acclimated to being a step-mother, returning to college to get various degrees, etc.; all encompassing the next decades. Pete Seeger, in 1993, published a book on the history of singalongs from the early years (long before I was born) through the era of the turbulent '60s (my real education in music) and into the next generation and the one after that. The music survives. It's titled Where Have all the Flowers Gone: A Singalong Memoir and is a great overview of the world of (folk) music (available through Amazon, of course). And, on page 144, there are two verses, attributed to Jean Wilcox, Illinois. To set the record straight: only the second verse is mine; I am sorry that the person who wrote the first one was lost to obscurity, probably in Pete's filing system or recording process. I wrote about this back in August of last year, with a slightly different take, so to read that whole discovery process, check my blog from then.
So, as Earth Day approaches, it occurs to me that taking out some of those old songs and verses, dusting them off, and singing to/for the environment is not a bad idea. And, if the muse hits, I may just pen another lyric or two to bring things up to date. Oh, and one more thing: next time I am in upstate New York, I will see that sloop, which is still going strong!