We were somewhere around Croton-on-the-Hudson on the edge of the 2019 Clearwater Festival when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying to my photographer, “I feel better.” And suddenly there was a terrible screeching under the train which was going 80 miles an hour into the next station. “Why do I see colors out there?” I shouted to my photographer.
“It’s the festival, get a grip on yourself, you only took a Claritin. What is the story here, will there be tear gas?” she asked, having just returned from a protest in Hong Kong.
“It’s The Great Hudson River Revival,” I said. “If there is tear gas it will be used on just us, so be cool. Besides, it’s a non-profit fundraising event for social justice, education and environmental programs. It also keeps the sloop Clearwater afloat.”
“Who started this?” she asked warily.
“Pete Seeger inspired it, he was a famous banjo player, folksinger, and activist. His Hudson River cleanup efforts are well known.”
“OK,” she said looking down at a brochure. “It says here that the festival includes events, sing-a-longs, food, and music.”
“Yes. And the legendary Del McCoury Band plays soon.”
We took a festival bus to the gate and immediately we saw someone…high. Really high—she was on stilts with a rainbow-colored umbrella. “Hey, welcome to Clearwater! I’m Alice,” she said looking down at me. The line in the song White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane popped in my head, “Go ask Alice, she’s ten feet tall…” So I turned, “Hey, which way to the Del McCoury Band concert stage?” She told us and we followed an easy path arriving just in time to see Del start.
“Howdee y’all,” he said giving his signature smile and chuckle. The crowd roared. His band kicked it with a barn burning “Sally Goodin” and then songs from his latest album, Del Still Sings Bluegrass. His band never misses a beat, so tasteful. Del said at one point that Nora Guthrie recently asked him to resurrect 3,000 of Woody Guthrie’s handwritten songs, those never set to music. Del then played one from that venture, Del and Woody, and followed by playing more from his past albums and then took audience requests. Del McCoury is as real as it gets, he loves people. At one juncture he paused and said, “I was watching some people over there and forgot what song I was gonna play!” He is a legend and also the most awarded artist in the history of bluegrass.
Women danced in tie-dye dresses, and people from all walks of life stood up to clap. My Hong Kong photographer started to tap her foot and ditched her gas mask. “He’s incredible,” she said. It was magic day on the Hudson River and one not soon forgotten.
As of this writing, August 16, 2019, Woodstock is exactly 50 years old. Del’s first solo album came out in the 60s. It was a great generation that cherished Pete Seeger’s music and now years later they made the great Clearwater Festival possible. It was a musically inclusive generation that saw Flatt and Scruggs open for Jefferson Airplane, and a generation that still loves to host bluegrass from one of its finest artists, Del McCoury.