Adventures in Activism: Folk Music and Soymilk Samples

As with probably every music festival ever, there’s usually at least one guy in a Utili-Kilt; because, you know, why not.

Laura Caseley

April 30, 2014 | Festival | May 2014

The Clearwater organization, and subsequent annual festival, was started by the late Pete Seeger in 1966 in reaction to the heavy pollution damaging the Hudson River and its surrounding ecosystems. From there, it took off, and became a music and environmental festival, fun and wholesome for the whole family. At best, it’s a nice place for families to hear music, learn about activism and buy stuff from local artists. At worst, it’s an epicenter for middle-class white liberals who want to assuage their consumerist guilt. In reality, it’s somewhere in the middle, and I can unabashedly say that, having gone since I was thirteen, it holds a special place in my heart. So much so that when I was older, I decided to work there as a volunteer.

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This picture makes it look more sparse but this is approximatively the general setting. There are trees (good for climbing), tents, colorful people doing colorful things, all with the backdrop of the Hudson River. Here’s the actual Hudson River:

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Here’s our majestic river. Look at that God-light and everything. That is some nature right there.

It’s a mid-sized, manageable festival, especially for kids, and volunteers get free camping and food. And the food is really good.  The headlining musical acts are usually pretty solid, including the likes of Natalie Merchant, Dar Williams, Ani DiFranco, Rufus Wainwright, and other folky types. I once got to see Kevin Bacon and his brother (who, sadly, seems to go through life known only as “Kevin Bacon’s brother”) perform. And now I know that Kevin Bacon also sings. There are also numerous smaller acts, usually close to the folk genre, and it’s a place where you can get all kinds of artisan crafts and local foods. In particular, check out the Green Living Expo to see nifty things you can do to green-ify your home, learn how to get involved with environmental organizations in the area, and, of course, hunt down the jolly Organic Valley representatives who hand out samples of chocolate soymilk from a refrigerated backpack/keg apparatus on their backs (it is MAGICAL). Additionally, There are many local farmers who bring along cute farm animals to pet and feel guilty for thinking about eating them.

The crowd is pretty friendly, made up of families with kids. There’s a whole kids’ area that will either be super fun and cute for you or you’ll want to avoid like the plague. The festival, though, is filled with all kinds of people: gangs of teenagers in hippie-punk finery who’ve come to rock out, young adults there for the booze and music but who also like to pretend they’re being responsible adults by drinking at an environmentally-themed festival, and young families come to educate their children about aquatic life by way of the river habitat exhibit. The best, though, are the grizzled old-school hippies who can tell you about the time they ate a sandwich with Pete Seeger in 1974 while cruising up and down the river in a sailboat. They usually have the best hats, and often come with cute nicknames like “Ajax.”

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You can totally walk goats on a leash. Fuck yeah, goats on a leash.

As with probably every music festival ever, there’s usually at least one guy in a Utili-Kilt; because, you know, why not? There’s also a cadre of prop-twirling types who convene in the open field to contact juggle (the guys who roll glass balls around on their arms) and hula-hoop with dramatic flairs. They seem to find each other wordlessly. These are their people. There’s one rule about contact jugglers: it is always, always funny when they inevitable drop the ball. Especially when they’re wearing Utili-Kilts.

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I spent much of my time as a volunteer in the activist area, which means I accosted people with petitions to shut down our area’s grody old nuclear plant; the festival, as well as my hometown, exist in what’s colloquially known as the “10-mile instant death zone.” Since it was a preaching-to-the-choir kind of venue, and because I was adorable, it was easy to garner signatures (that likely did nothing) and gain brownie points with the committee organizers. A few times I even got requested because of how charming I was talking about alternative energy sources. Over the course of the weekend I would typically acquire a couple strange accessories and some sort of sun damage.

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Being a volunteer has its perks, especially when it comes to the camaraderie shared only by people who are working without pay but still have a strong sense of how much shit they’re willing to put up with. One time, I got dropped off at the Croton-Harmon train station and got on one of the school buses they use to ferry people in. The bus was crowded and hot and we had a long line of cars baking in the sun ahead of us. We watched the driver assess the situation. She calmly gripped the steering wheel with one hand, and held the other aloft and announced in a thick Jamaican accent.

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“I’m’a take a chance now.” She proceeded to swerve into the left lane and gun it down the road into the park, and the entire bus cheered as we mercilessly blew past a million raging festival-goers.  When she dropped us off at the festival’s entrance, every one of the passengers, myself included, shook her hand and congratulated her on her vehicular badassery, and she smiled sweetly the whole time. I have no doubt that she returned to do the exact same thing many times over that weekend.

While the volunteers’ duties are mainly limited to the committees they sign up for, there are always some that come out of left field. I once had a woman spy my wristband and swoop in out of nowhere with a small boy in tow.

“Hi,” she said brightly. “Would you mind watching him for just one minute?” And then she placed the boy in front of me with a smile.

This was not in my job description. But before I could say, “Wait, lady, you don’t even know me, maybe I eat babies,” she had disappeared into the port-o-potties, leaving me alone with her toddler. With nothing to entertain him and very limited knowledge of interacting with people under four, I attempted to amuse him with blades of grass. We both pretended it was interesting, but soon he grew bored and began to toddle off. I had visions of all the terrible things that could happen—he could be trampled by a herd of hula-hoop-waving hippies; he could roll down the hill into the river; he could blunder into one of the vendor tents and be speared by a million crystal jewelry pieces. Though his mother appeared in time to save him from certain death, it was still probably the most high-pressure experience I’ve had.

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Since it’s on a river, there’s also kayaking and sailing spots, and while the park does have a small beach, swimming is best done towards the back of the park if you’re volunteering, where it’s less crowded. Plus, no one ever seems to remember to bring bathing suits, so a secluded area is what you want if you’re going au naturel, strontium-90 and PCBs be damned. The water’s brackish but, despite my mother’s protestations, will not corrode your skin or mutate your genes. But if my kids end up having flippers, we’ll know why.

At night, they throw a dance party for all the volunteers with the most energetic band willing to stay up late.  It was here that I received what remains to be nicest thing anyone has ever said to me: “You’re like a one-woman mosh pit!”  This was during a Perfect Thyroid show, which also happened to be my friend Marvin’s favorite band in high school, so he was thrilled when he got to go on stage with them. And he was wearing a maxi skirt at the time because that’s how Marvin rolls.

Night time, of course, was a different story, since the only people left were the weirdos that decided sleeping in a park all weekend is a normal thing to do. Volunteer camping was divided into two sections—a quiet section for people who did things like go to sleep when it was dark and get up early, and then the section for normal people who liked to stay up late and drink.  There was also a far-separated camping area for the site crew, but no one went back there because it was generally believed the site crew were cannibals. This was the time of night when my friends and I would sneak off into the back area of the park, which was unlit except, if we were lucky, by moonlight. The park, before it was a park, was home to a number of business ventures, and at some point, someone dug wine cellars into the hillside. There were four vaulted brick chambers, two at ground level, side by side, and two below, deep in the earth. You’re not technically supposed to go anywhere near them, and the last time I was there I saw they built metal doors over them, mainly because people like us kept weaseling our way in through the plywood ones.

Written and Illustrated by Laura C., check out her website for more.

Laura Caseley is a New York City-based writer and illustrator. She can usually be found making strange things in the name of art or drinking tea. You can find more of her work on her website, or follow her adventures on Facebook and Tumblr. Drawing on a variety of inspirations, including folklore, nature and pop culture, she works to create visual manifestations of her interior world.

1 Comment

  1. Ashley
    May 21, 2014

    Leave a Reply

    I really dig these illustrations! Cool piece.

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