September-October 2015


By Audrey Coleman

Geoff Kauffman
Mystic Seaport Sea Music Festival director Geoff Kauffman (left) plays the bones aboard the Charles W. Morgan.

Is it strange for me to be enthralled with sea music? My sea legs are so shaky that a ferry from San Pedro to Catalina Island leaves my stomach emptied. Nevertheless, when Michael and I were in San Francisco to attend the opera (our tastes are eclectic, I avow), we encountered traditional folksongs of the sea on the San Francisco waterfront. This day-long festival of sea music, sponsored by the Maritime Museum, was taking place on Hyde Street Pier just steps from our hotel, The Argonaut. The working chanteys, ballads of loss and nostalgia, rollicking ditties – hooked us so completely that we returned the next year for the event. Michael and I would stock up on sea music CDs in the little Maritime Store by the Pier; a number of them were recordings from a mega sea music festival at a place called Mystic Seaport. A few years ago the San Francisco Sea Music Festival was discontinued. We were in need of our annual sea music fix. What to do? Hence our pilgrimage this past June to the 36th Sea Music Festival in Mystic, Connecticut for four days of sea music immersion.

Before sampling the musical menu of this remarkable event, you should know that Mystic Seaport is home to much more than the annual international musical gathering. On the day before the inaugural concert, Michael and I scoped out the 19-acre Maritime Museum grounds. We visited a living history fishing village of the 19th century. Various period buildings house a working shipsmith (blacksmith), period grocer, old-time apothecary, shipping office, schoolhouse, bake shop, chapel, lighthouse and cooperage (where barrels are constructed). A bustling shipyard employs workers using 19th century tools and techniques to restore historic wooden ships and boats. Then there are the traditional as opposed to living history museums: an extensive exhibit of historic marine equipment and artifacts, a tantalizing display of musical instruments played aboard ship in the 18th and 19th centuries, a seafarer’s planetarium. Mystic Seaport is the largest marine museum in the world. Most awesome are the ships docked on the river. Designated National Historic Landmarks, they include an 1882 training vessel, an early 20th century fishing schooner, and the pièce de résistance – the world’s last surviving wooden whale ship, the Charles W Morgan.

The genres of music associated with the sea range from colorful narrative ballads to bitter songs telling the plight of sailors pressed into service against their will to equally bitter complaints of abandoned wives, not to mention celebrations of the females found in different ports plus pirate ditties and sailors’ horn pipes. But, for me, the quintessential sea music is the chantey (also spelled shanty), traditionally an a cappella call-and-response song performed in unison, usually in the context of work tasks that required the crew to coordinate their efforts, heaving or pulling in response to a singing lead sailor. So, from the abundance of sea music I encountered during the four concerts and daytime workshops at Mystic, I’m going to stick with the chantey.

Among the jobs on tall ships appropriate for chantey singing were working the pump used to raise the anchor, pumping the bilge, and hauling up the halyard which is attached to the sails, and thus necessary for raising the sails. This chantey grabbed me with its fast, relentless rhythm:

Leader: Julianna Juliana O where do you go

Crew: Ah ha me London Julies

Leader: Julianna Juliana O where do you go

Crew: Ah ha me London Julies

Leader: Up aloft up aloft this yard must go

Crew: Ah ha me London Julies

Leader: Up aloft up aloft this yard must go

Crew: Ah ha me London Julies

Leader: And around Cape Horn there’s ice and snow

Crew: Ah ha me London Julies

Leader: But around Cape Horn we all must go

Crew: Ah ha me London Julies

Leader: The mate is bawling down below

Crew: Ah ha me London Julies

Leader: So heave away lash up and stow

Crew: Ah ha me London Julies

Dead Horse on a Tall Ship

Dead Horse ceremony
In the tall ship-era, an indentured sailor paying off his final debt celebrated with the hoisting of an effigy of a dead horse, representing the debt.

On board the Charles W Morgan, we witnessed a tradition of the British and American Navy that inspired a particular chantey. It didn’t accompany labor but certainly dealt with the subject. Frequently sailors were indentured to work by the captain or by other creditors on board or on land. When such a sailor had paid off his debt, he would say “the horse is dead.” A celebration of his new right to pocket his pay involved making a fake horse from scrap materials and hoisting it up the mast. Festival director Geoff Kaufmann led the chantey in his robust baritone after teaching the crowd the crew’s lines:

Leader: They say old man your horse will die

Crew: And they say so and they hope so

Leader: Oh poor old man your horse will die

Crew: Poor old man

Leader: For many days I’ve ridden him

Crew: And they say so and they hope so

Leader: And when he dies I’ll tan his skin

Crew: Oh poor old man

Leader: And if he lives I’ll ride him again

Crew: And they say so and they hope so

Leader: I’ll ride him with a tighter rein

Crew: Oh poor old horse

Leader: It’s up aloft the horse must go

Crew: They say so and they hope so

Leader: We’ll hoist him up and bury him low

Crew: Oh poor old horse

Tinkering with Chanteys

Pressgang Mutiny
Toronto-based Pressgang Mutiny chantey singers in front of the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan at Mystic, Connecticut.

Of course we can’t know for sure how chanteys sounded in the 19th century. From those passed down, however, we know that many were sung in unison. And so controversies arise over what is and is not an authentic chantey performance. These days, chantey groups may introduce harmony into the genre with varying results and receptions. A happy example is Pressgang Mutiny, a group of six young men from Toronto who performed in Mystic for the first time last June, delivering chanteys with some verses in harmony, spicy rhythmic nuances and changing soloists. In a group interview, the members were quick to assure me of their respect for the tradition. Founder James MacKine, who grew up with Irish and Cape Breton folk music traditions, told me he found two camps when it comes to folk music. “The group that wants to keep everything the way it was or the way they perceive it was and the group that wants to make changes like introducing bouzoukis and guitars. I feel we need both camps in a way – to preserve the music historically accurately and to keep it relevant and alive. With chanteys and with other folk music, I like to think of it as almost learning a language. You have to learn the grammatical rules of the language… And then after that, you can start writing your own stories and improvising, but if you don’t learn the grammatical structure you might be misrepresenting the musical practice.”

Festival organizer Geoff Kaufman heard about Pressgang Mutiny when touring in Nova Scotia last October and was urged by fellow seasoned musicians to check them out. “So I listened to their YouTube (performances) and immediately I got hold of them. And I’m sure it that we’ll be bringing them back because they’re a big hit. When you get six guys singing tight harmonies and they are such excellent musicians, it’s a delight.”

Another group that performed in Mystic for the first time, Shapiro’s Shanty Shakedown, pushes the envelope further. Chanteys become the foundation for funky band arrangements that accompany Jordan Shapiro’s vocals. It is doubtful that any tall ship ever accommodated together an accordion, fiddle, banjo, trumpet, trombone, tuba, drums, and (good heavens!) a French horn. They were good musicians and fun to listen to although I did find myself wondering, “What crew ever sounded like this?” Geoff Kaufmann had them play in the Thursday night concert which is his typical testing ground for unusual takes on sea music. “The response has been amazing,” he reported. “There were a couple of traditionalists who weren’t that thrilled but a lot of the audience came up to me afterwards and said that the group was great and why weren’t these guys here all weekend. I certainly have different feelings about how far that sort of thing can be pushed. There are some rock ‘n roll bands out there that have been using sea music as their base and I’ve never brought them just because I think that’s a little bit beyond the pale of what I want to present at this event. The nature of this event is to have it hold on to the elements of traditional music. I want it to be fundamentally an acoustic presentation.”

Teen Absence and Presence

The teenage chanty group The Chanteens doing sailors' work aboard the Charles W. Morgan.

The festival attracted families, folk revival veterans, and various others seeming to be between thirty and sixty years old. The teenage set was largely missing, but at least teens were represented in performance by fourteen members of a group known as The Chanteens. They attend the Sound School in New Haven, Connecticut, an agricultural and aquacultural high school where the trades of both fields are integrated into the academic program. Singing chanteys is an extracurricular option. Senior student and Chanteen Sydnee Odei-Ntiri told me that singing chanteys in concert during the year has given her confidence and a sense of fellowship. During the festival they got to sing while carrying out typical 19th century work tasks aboard the Charles W Morgan.

An African-American Sea Music Tradition

Northern Neck Chantey Singers
The Northern Neck Chantey Singers perform at the Saturday evening concert, clutching an authentic fishnet.

What I never have dreamed I’d see was a group of men who had actually sung chanteys while fishing from boats in the Chesapeake Bay and nearby Atlantic waters. Now in their seventies and eighties, these six African-American fishermen from the Northern Neck Peninsula of Virginia worked aboard fishing boats between the 1930s and the 1950s, pulling up hand nets teaming with menhaden fish. From long rowboats, as many as 40 men would haul the net and close the drawstring on thousands of pounds of fish, the chanteys in their regional tradition rhythmically coordinating their efforts. Today the six retirees are the Northern Neck Chantey Singers, founded in 1991 by William Hudnall. Besides performing in concerts at the festival, they held a session that gave visitors a sense of how chanteys were used and how songs were passed among boats. Hudnall recalled, “You’d be pulling as hard as you possibly could pull and I mean you’d be straining. And you couldn’t get them fish to come up at all. Somebody hit that chantey and started to get into it and after a while you see, here it starts coming up. Inch by inch… That’s where you’d see all this foam start dripping. You hadn’t killed them and they hadn’t killed you. But it was fifty-fifty. You were nearly dead and so were they.”

Their singing style incorporates harmonized group singing as well as solo singing in a responsorial structure. One chantey they performed was slow-paced, soulful and emotionally intense:

Group: My lordie, maybe I get a letter

Soloist: Say, “Daddy, come ho-ome.”

Group: My lordie, lo-o-ord, “Daddy come home.”

Soloist: I can’t go ho-ome

Group: My lordie, ain’t got no ready-made money

Soloist: To pay my wa-ay.

Group: My lordie, lo-o-ord, to pay my way.  

On a lighter note, they shared a fast-paced lilting song spiced with improvised lyrics:

Soloist: Hey, hey Mama Liza

Group: Mama Liza Jane

Soloist: Hey, hey Mama Liza

Group: Mama Liza Jane

Soloist: I’ve got a girl in New York City

Group: Mama Liza Jane

Soloist: She’s solid and real pretty

Group: Mama Liza Jane

Soloist: I’ve got a girl in Baltimore

Group: Mama Liza Jane

Soloist: Where she goes nobody knows

Group: Mama Liza Jane

Soloist: I’ve got a girl in this Mystic town

Group: Mama Liza Jane

Soloist: She knows how to get around

Group: Mama Liza Jane

Soloist: Hey, hey Mama Liza

Group: Mama Liza Jane

Soloist: Hey, hey Mama Liza

Group: Mama Liza Jane

Hand net fishing faded from view in the 1950s with the introduction of the hydraulic power block for hoisting menhaden nets. The regional chanteying tradition seemed to disappear, too, but over 30 years later, maritime folklorists sought Hudnall and other chantey singers to learn about and revive the music. With a changing membership as members have passed on, the Northern Neck Chantey Singers have appeared on radio and television and at festivals for over twenty years, sharing their work history through their musical tradition.

Learning of this rich cultural history, I felt disappointed that the festival had attracted so few African American visitors. Most Americans, regardless of ethnic background, are unaware of the contribution of African-Americans to maritime culture. In fact, one workshop dealt with the rowing songs created by slaves who navigated inland waterways in the South and with the music of African Americans that populated crews on the high seas. The banjo, of African origin, likely found its way onto decks with African-American sailors.

Final Blastoff

After the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night concerts, the MC invited everyone to come on over to “the German Hall” for a “chantey blast.” Michael and I had never heard the term, but followed the crowd through the grounds in the dark and across the street to a small wood-frame building where they were selling beer in the anteroom to a spacious wood-paneled dance hall. German Hall is a private lodge that rents out late-night space during the Sea Music Festival for jam sessions – chantey blasts.

When we enter the hall, over fifty people are sitting on the old pine floorboards and the scattered chairs, benches, and counter ledges are jam-packed. Everyone’s attention is on a grey-haired man wearing a captain’s cap. Standing and staring down the crowd as if he’s ready to tackle anyone who crosses him, he tears into a chantey.

Man: I’m an able seaman, bold and true

Crowd: Hi-hi-hi Mr. Storm-a-long

Man: Now I wish I was a Tommy’s son

Crowd: Timmy-way-storm –a-long

Man: I’d build me a ship of 1000 tons

Crowd: Hi-hi-hi Mr. Storm-a-long

Man: And I’d fill her up with mickey rum

Crowd: Timmy-way-storm –a-long…

The chantey lasts about two minutes. Then applause bursts forth from all sides. Seconds later, a 30ish woman in black tank top leaps from the floor and begins belting:

Woman: For I served me time on the Blackball Line

Crowd: Timmy way-hay-hay –hay-hurr-i-o

Woman: Blackball Line I served me time

Crowd: Hurrah for the Blackball Line…

Without interruption, impromptu chantey leaders pop up in different parts of the hall and the crowd of at least a hundred sings the responding crew lyrics right on cue. For over two hours, the music flows continuously along with the beer.

Chantey Blast
Chantey jam sessions known as a 'chantey blasts' go on for over two hours after the evening concerts.

This chantey blast impressed upon me the passion for sea music in a special niche of the folk music community. The 200+ people attending the Mystic Sea Music Festival had not come just to listen to sea music, not just to celebrate it. They had come to sing it. Festival Director Geoff Kaufmann sees the Mystic group as particularly motivated to sing. “I think one of the things about this festival is that it stays contained and small to some extent. I know that the administration at the Seaport here would love to have 10,000 people show up for this but I don’t really want that to happen.”

What Next?

Would I go to Mystic again or do I feel I’ve “been-there-done-that”? Well, I wouldn’t go for 20 years straight like many attendees I encountered, but yes, I would go from time to time and not miss a single chantey blast. But wait! During my time at Mystic, I learned that the San Francisco Sea Music Festival had started up again. In fact, it was scheduled for Saturday, September 13, 2015. But blast it, the date conflicted with an opera premiere we had tickets to attend in Los Angeles.

Audrey: Oh, the trials of those with eclectic taste

Readers: Such trials, pity such trials

Audrey: They choose one show while another they waste

Readers: Such a pity to miss fine music, oh

Do you want to explore traditional sea music? If so, check out any of the Mystic Seaport Festival CDs or other sea music collections from the Mystic Seaport Museum Store.

Audrey Coleman is a writer, educator, and ethnomusicologist who explores traditional and world musics in Southern California and beyond.


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