For most young Red Sox fans, the song “Dirty Water” requires an explanation: Yes, the Charles River was once so polluted it was a national joke. The song endures not just for its funky ’60s beat (wamp-wamp-wamp), but also as a marker of how much the city’s environment has improved since Dick Dodd sang the Standells hit in 1966. Dodd, who died last week, didn’t exactly mean the song as a compliment. In fact, he’d never even visited Boston. But like many Americans, he’d heard plenty about the putrid state of the Charles, the “dirty water” of the title.
Cleaning up the Charles and Boston Harbor ranks as a great environmental accomplishment. Just in local terms, the cleanup improved life for residents and opened up new recreational opportunities. But resuscitating the river accomplished something else: It helped cleanse Boston’s image in the wider world.
And, by doing so, the cleanup also took the sting out of “Dirty Water,” turning it into just a quirky historical artifact. In 1996, former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld dove into the river, a symbolic moment in its turnaround. The next year, the Sox started playing “Dirty Water” after home victories. Boston has fully embraced Dodd’s song as an unofficial anthem — but only as the sad state that inspired it fades ever-further into memory.