Notes from Clearwater

by Annie Rosenthal

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After I graduated high school, I spent the first few weeks of the summer of 2015 walking around the city listening to podcasts, doing some half-hearted job hunting and trying to get gap year plans in order. When my friend Dio emailed me and asked if I’d want to volunteer with her at a music festival in New York for the weekend, I agreed within minutes.

The Great Hudson River Revival started as a fundraiser: Pete Seeger wanted to build a sloop to clean up the polluted Hudson in the sixties, and he and his wife Toshi put on a bunch of concerts in the valley, passing around a banjo to finance the project. They built the Clearwater sloop and the Clearwater Festival became permanent. Now for two days every summer, thousands of people assemble to answer the sweet siren call of folk music and environmental activism at Croton Point Park in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, an hour’s train ride from the city.

In some ways, Clearwater is like a lot of other music festivals. You see dozens of winking, sunburned belly buttons, and painted faces, and the crowd at each of the seven stages is a sea of rainbow outfits. You can’t walk a hundred feet in any direction without smelling weed. And when I texted my dad a video of attendees dancing to a Cuban salsa band, he wrote back, “Sooo many white people.”

But festival-goers here aren’t stoned college kids in flower crowns and bindis–they’re stoned 60-year-olds in Keens, Bernie 2016 shirts, and grey braids. The stages are solar-powered. Clearwater has a zero-waste policy and every band is accompanied by an energetic sign language interpreter who sways and bounces to the beat. The hippies of 2015 have converged! They still expect better from their government than it delivers, and they’re still unfailingly genuine. But now they have iPhones to record their favorite acts, and between sets they chat about which HBO shows they watch.

Volunteering was a pretty sweet setup: for a $20 membership fee and 10 hours of work over the whole weekend, I got three heaping meals a day, a camp site, a T-shirt, and access to all the music all day long. I drove up with my friend and her neighbors, seasoned Clearwater vets. As the Seegers’ great niece, Dio had been going for years.

At 7:45 on our first morning there, we walked to breakfast behind a teenage boy in a kilt who was drinking beer from a bottle. I’d been awake half the night listening to fellow volunteers across the road belting “Psycho Killer,” and my brain was still yowling “A-ya-ya-ya” on repeat. I hadn’t brushed my teeth yet. It was all mildly uncomfortable and weird, and I liked it.

At the merch tent, where I’d been assigned to work, I alphabetized CD’s and t-shirts as the performers checked them in. They trailed guitar cases and the occasional grumpy manager and tipped their fedoras at my boss, a hip high school history teacher from Brooklyn with a baby daughter named Magnolia. Most were their own roadies, and asked for the cardboard CD boxes back when we were done with them.

When I told my merch tent coworkers I was taking a gap year and hadn’t entirely nailed down my plans, they didn’t bat an eye. Andi, a former Women’s Studies major who started an anarchist environmental zine in the seventies, gave me his phone number to talk about an organic farmer in California I could work with, after asking, “Do you use a phone?”

The people at Clearwater were paying attention. This being the week after the Charleston church shooting, blues singer Toshi Reagon dedicated a song to South Carolina. The activist area featured tents representing NARAL Pro-Choice America, New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, and an organization partnering American and Salvadoran cities. I never made it halfway down the festival’s one road without being accosted by a girl with a nose ring or a guy with no shoes holding a petition to close a nuclear plant or stop deportations. I promised to call the White House on Monday to protest drilling in the Arctic and felt a pang of shame even as I said it, knowing I wasn’t really planning on doing it.

The Clearwaterers (Clearwaterians? Clearwaders?) want to make the world a better place, and they’re not lazy about it. They’re caricatures of hippies, but they’re anti-pretension, friendly, and they really want to make a difference. Everyone here cares and no one is ashamed of it.

On principle, I’m not anti-shame. When you do something bad, shame is the catalyst slap that says, “Do better.” But I think embarrassment is shame’s useless younger brother, designed to cling to your ankles and hold you back for no good reason.

Clearwater gave me a peek into a world in which that ankle-grabber got put up for adoption. There’s no room here for embarrassment. Everyone is good enough. Except if you make the mistake of trying to recycle a compostable paper cup—then the Zero Waste volunteers DESCEND. A sign near the festival’s entrance read, “You can’t throw anything away. There is no AWAY. Disposal is a lie!”

The festival isn’t ironic, or hip—it’s not about knowing bands other people don’t know. It’s share-the-wealth to its core: the space in front of every stage is reserved for the disabled; a fifty-something year old woman gave me blue-hair-dye tips when I asked; a mom trailed her gurgling toddler in a banana yellow t-shirt proclaiming, “CAPITALISM IS THE DEVIL’S WET DREAM!” Make New Friends would also be an accurate theme for the weekend—said Ani DiFranco from the stage before her set, “There are more people I love dearly at this festival than at any other festival I know. Probably a lot more I’d love if I knew ya.”

On Saturday, WKUV was live-broadcasting from the Rainbow Stage, where all the biggest acts played, and which appropriately served as a beacon of light through drizzly air. Before she introduced Neko Case, the woman from the station looked out at the rain and said, “You’re Clearwater! Nothing can dampen your spirits.” And she was right. I sat in muddy grass through an hour of showers to listen to Kate Pierson of the B-52s sing songs that Sia had written for her new album. When she sang REM’s “Shiny Happy People,” the shiny happy aging crowd in their wizard hats and space-printed leggings danced along, and the joy was palpable.

By late afternoon the festival was buzzing with flash flood warnings. An old man eating dinner with us on the picnic benches growled conspiratorially, “Get the hell out of Dodge before it’s too late.” But nobody left. That night Dio and her neighbor Margot and I ate hamburgers on the wall by the river and watched the moon go up in the grey sky and turn the water silver and pink. When it got all the way dark we followed the light of a fire into a teepee the size of a medium-sized house. We’d figured it was a festival attraction, but it turned out to be the campsite of a gruff old man and his thirty-something companion. They grudgingly offered us seats. We watched the old guy cook sausages over a fire, and he told us he was at the festival to raise awareness of the government’s treatment of Native Americans: “You never learn that shit in schools, because the government wouldn’t let that happen.”

His companion told us he was a “work-evader” from Vermont who admitted sheepishly that he officiated weddings “on the side.” He leaned back in his chair and preached the virtues of Bernie Sanders until a guy with fresh fish guts ambled in and cooking required everyone’s attention. We took that as our cue to head to the Volunteer Dance Party.

Picture the Ultimate Middle School Dance, complete with grinding and snacks. Except instead of hormonal middle-schoolers, there were humans of all ages shimmying on each other, and instead of a DJ playing “Like a G6”, an Indian Irish-inspired funk-electronic band from Canada had everyone’s full attention. Beer replaced soda, and total, unrestrained enthusiasm replaced awkwardness.

Halfway through the night, the lead singer had us all put our hands up. “This bubble is something special that doesn’t exist anywhere else. So feel it,” he breathed seductively into the mic.

Before their last song, he changed his mind: “From the love you’re giving out, you guys carry this bubble around with you all the time.”

I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t cheesy. It was mozzarella plus gouda and a mountain of cheddar on top. But for a moment I felt like I’d been dunked in a huge bucket of cool, sweet relief: the whole world isn’t judgmental, growing up doesn’t mean you can’t dye your hair blue, you don’t have to know who you are right now, you’re allowed to show that you care. Teenage angst has been blowing me, y’all! Plus, being on the crack between my old life and a new one had been weirdly anticlimactic: graduation was a big ceremony requiring us to wear fancy clothes and devote at least twenty percent of our attention to drawling, optimistic speeches about Our Futures, and we didn’t even get diplomas—opening the padded booklet after I crossed the stage, I found a sheet that told me to come pick mine up at school in a few weeks. And I know senior spring is supposed to be the most relaxing time ever, but for weeks I’d been worrying: Did I decide on the right college? Will I find people like me there? Will I make friends on my gap year? What if my Dream Guy graduates the year before I come and we miss out on True Love???

Now, with watermelon dripping down my face, my body coated in three days worth of sweat and dirt and bugspray, watching adults grind around me and feeling the vibrations of an Irish-inspired Bollywood gogo beat come up through my Teva-destroyed feet, I realized just how free I was. I realized I wasn’t in a hurry, and that was okay.

15-year-old Dorothy Dark wrote in Pitchfork that Bonnaroo is about going outside your comfort zone. I think Clearwater is about going into your comfort zone—right into the heart of it, to a place you can’t really live forever because the world isn’t nearly that happy or friendly or full of folk music—but you can take a tiny bit of it with you. The summer I headed home to sunburned and dirty at the end of the weekend wasn’t the Summer of Love. But it was a summer I spent with people I love, doing things I love in a place I love. It was the last time we would all be in the same place for a while, and that didn’t mean we had to spend the next few weeks cuddling and crying (although some of that was in order). It meant we were allowed to stop and remember and breathe. I won’t spend the rest of my life barefoot and smacked, swaying to David Crosby’s voice, but in Clearwater spirit I plan to take my time and participate. And maybe next year I’ll join the late-night Psycho Killers in song.

***

In January 2016, six months after I wrote this essay, I got an email from my merch tent manager. She was passing on some sobering news: there would be no festival this summer. The Clearwater sloop is undergoing its biggest restoration ever, and there’s only enough money in the collective pocket to make sure the boat that started all of this can set sail on the Hudson in June.

I like to think that if the tree-hugging, hip-shaking, love-giving humans of the weekend I witnessed can withstand flash floods (and five decades made of as much suffering as joy: the deaths of friends and family members, the Reagan years and the rise of the Tea Party, the advent of fracking/individually plastic-wrapped juice boxes/DONALD TRUMP), then they—we— can make it through a dry year, too.

May 2017 bring the revival of the Revival.

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