From this moment forward, I will hear no more aging hippie jokes. You want to crack wise on whining investment bankers, deranged wingers or Christianists who think they’re persecuted because the Constitution doesn’t allow them to turn public school sessions into pulpit calls, I’m with you. But it’s time to retire the snarking at Birkenstocks and veganism and all the other slings and arrows aimed at anyone who understands that the Sixties were about a lot more than sex and drugs. I spent the weekend at the Clearwater Festival in Croton Point Park, headlined this year by Arlo Guthrie (above), and you would have been hard-pressed to find a more wonderful bunch of people in one place anywhere else.
The event was started forty years ago by Pete Seeger, and he remains the presiding spirit of the festival, and this was his 90th birthday weekend festival. That’s him in the pink shirt, playing the banjo next to his grandson Tao during a Sunday afternoon session, and I can only hope I’m drawing that big a crowd when I’m 90. (This is the point where our conservative friends can insert their standard boilerplate condemnation of Seeger for not condemning Stalin, or at least not doing it fast enough to please John Podhoretz. Assuming they can stop weeping over the memories of Franco and Pinochet, that is.) As one would expect, Seeger’s performance was a series of exhortations set to music, but they were good things to be reminded about. “Don’t say it can’t be done,” he chanted, “your fight has just begun.” The sheer amount of goodwill Seeger generates is remarkable.
Yes, there was quite a bit of gray hair in the crowd. The people in the audience were, in fact, the best possible advertisment for growing old with ideals. The sort of assiness that usually afflicts large-scale gatherings of this sort was completely absent. This in the face of constantly changing weather — intervals of sunshine between stretches of hammering rain — that would have caused riots anywhere else. When the weather cleared, you had vistas like this only a few hundred yards from the main stage:
I’m always startled by the sheer size of the Hudson River along this stretch — I might have been looking out across Barnegat Bay.
The headliners were honorable old pros — except for Susan Tedeschi, of course, who is still just an honorable pro — doing what they’ve been doing for decades, and doing it with enough ease and intimacy to make big public spaces feel like a rec room. Taj Mahal, Seeger and Guthrie have been living this music for decades, and there was a noticeable weight of history throughout the festival. Guthrie joked about having played at another very muddy outdoor music festival a few decades ago, in fact — “it’s the same rain!”
About four songs into Guthrie’s closing set, a wall of rain clobbered the place and set less stouthearted souls running for their cars. Guthrie played on: as long as people were ready to listen, he was ready to continue. The night ended with Clearwater’s other headliners joining Guthrie for a group performance.
The most impressive of the whippersnappers was Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, a big loud band with a flashy guitarist and a singer who’s spent quality time with her Led Zeppelion records.