A different kind of party, Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival marks its 40th anniversary in June. More than any other established music festival, the Clearwater Festival, as it’s commonly known, is directly associated with activism and the environmental movement via the imprimatur of its founder, Pete Seeger. It has thus always featured a gracefully integrated didactic and participatory component that newer-model festivals like Lollapalooza have attempted to emulate, sometimes in the form of community-minded afterthoughts like clean-needle-awareness programs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But Clearwater remains the most socially purposeful, family- and eco-friendly and perhaps the soberest of Bacchanalia. What certainly hasn’t escaped notice, however, is what a fine and inclusive music festival it has evolved into in the last decade, in which it has strayed in thoughtfully curated ways from its home base of folk and bluegrass. Embodying Ellington’s famous words – all music is folk music; “it’s music for folks!” – Clearwater has embraced world music fully, has come to peaceable terms with rock and now understands electronics as the people’s tools every bit as much as Woody’s text-covered guitar and Pete’s four-string banjo.
And somehow, it still remains solidly a folk and roots festival. Just looking along the top line of this year’s lineup, we can read a lot into the working aesthetics of Clearwater. Jeff Tweedy’s career has evolved into an unlikely pivot point of American music, a wheel with spokes in all directions. As a member of Uncle Tupelo, he helped usher in the new alt/folk impulse of the ’90s, which in essence wrested the earthy eccentricity and political agency of folk and country back from a Nashville establishment that was aiming for mass-media currency. Our own roots/rock hero Rhett Miller was a big player in that story as well, as was another of Clearwater’s headliners this year, Beth Orton, in her “folktronica” way. With Wilco, Tweedy has defined a broad territory of experimental, progressive roots music. His musical purpose – indeed his very existence – provides a fitting, core rationale of Clearwater’s cultivated inclusivity.
As famous for musical and business autonomy as for contentious provocation and an aggressive and sophisticated guitar technique, folk/rocker Ani DiFranco is revered and reviled and above all revolutionary. She is a direct heir of Guthrie and Seeger in her walk of the talk and in her sturdy command of multiple folk and roots idioms, which she populates with news from today’s fronts, not yesteryear’s. Pete really must have appreciated her, is my guess. And it is time – more than 20 years now after she was the story – that we all do as well.
With the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Rhiannon Giddens has pretty much owned the moment in current/traditional roots music. And, man, is she up to it or what? Outlaws of a different sort, Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore have formed a late career duo of prolific and influential “insider pick” songwriters.
2018 features what is perhaps Clearwater’s oddest booking to date: the brilliant, brainy, surreal and enduring smart-pop duo They Might Be Giants, who are almost certainly the least organic act ever to mount the stage at Croton Point, even though they play real guitars and drums. And yet Clearwater has earned the right to such WTF moves, for with every one, they widen the reach of the “big tent” of American music: music for folks. What Pete Seeger made, or would have made, of “Ana Ng” – now a sobering 30 years old – is anyone’s guess. I think it is one of the most beautiful and touching songs of the 20th century.
Clearwater takes place on the weekend of June 16 and 17 at Croton Point Park. For the full lineup and the necessarily complex ticketing and camping and parking options, visit www.clearwaterfestival.org.