You’ve probably heard a lot of Pete Seeger songs in the last couple of days. And no wonder: When Seeger died on Monday, he left behind a very long lifetime’s worth of beautiful, cheeky, unforgettable songs. But what he left me -- and the millions of other kids who grew up along the Hudson River during his tenure there -- is not a song but a story. And the story is as good a cure for cynicism as any I know.
It goes like this.
When Pete and his wife Toshi bought land in Beacon, N.Y., in the 1940s, moving upstate to Beacon was not a hip thing to do. The Hudson’s riverfront towns had busted decades earlier, and they were tough little places -- still are, in many respects. Many obituaries have mentioned that at the time the Seegers arrived, the Hudson River was dirty. Well, it was filthy. Almost anyone could dump almost anything into the river, no permit required: sewage, garbage, industrial waste in all its awful variety. Bacteria consumed so much oxygen that fish sometimes suffocated in the water. Near Tarrytown, about 25 miles north of Manhattan, the color of the river changed to match the color of the paint applied to cars at the local General Motors plant. You didn’t fish in the Hudson if you valued your health, and you didn’t swim in it if you valued your life.