The skies above Victorian seaports like Port Townsend are accustomed to loud and lusty sea shanties, which are sailors’ work songs. At the Northwest Maritime Center, 30 to 40 people meet each month …
The skies above Victorian seaports like Port Townsend are accustomed to loud and lusty sea shanties, which are sailors’ work songs. At the Northwest Maritime Center, 30 to 40 people meet each month to sing songs that “echoed across this waterfront like cell phone conversations do today,” said Mike James, one of the acknowledged leaders of Port Townsend’s Sing Shanties group.
People who just want to listen are also welcome at the monthly sing-alongs, and it’s free live music. Beware, matey: when surrounded by voices belting out familiar, repetitive tunes, even stalwart non-singers have been known to chime in. (Almost everybody knows the chorus to “What do you do with a drunken sailor?”)
“When it comes to shanties, you don’t have to sing well, just loud,” James said. “Number one, it’s not a talent show.”
Shanties were developed and sung by sailors who did physical labor requiring concerted effort, often lined up pulling hand-over-hand on a rope, or pushing the bars of a capstan around and around in a circle, raising the anchor.
James has sung shanties at the Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle, astonished that the 900-seat theater was filled to overflowing when his group took the stage. The songs are so old, people just seem to know them, and performances turn into sing-alongs.
“That’s the crazy thing,” he said. “You sing through one verse, and after the first three words, everybody knows the refrain.”
Wayne Palsson of Seattle’s Northwest Seaport leads the Jan. 17 sing-along in Port Townsend, from 6-8 p.m. at the Northwest Maritime Center. Shanty sings take place there on the second Wednesday of each month, in the mustard-yellow building’s high-ceilinged great room, a venue they settled on after some floating around.
“The ideal venue is a pub,” said Jay Hagar, who with James recently went on a New England shanty tour. They fondly recalled the Dog Bar in Gloucester, Massachusetts, which hosts a shanty sing every week. “Every Monday night, it’s like a family,” Hagar said of the Dog Bar’s event.
The Pizza Factory on Water Street worked for PT Sing Shanties for awhile, but the video-game noise was distracting.
“We tried the Pope [Marine Park] building and we tried the community center uptown,” James said, but couldn’t muster the fees for those spaces. “We’re an unfunded group. I put out a hat. That’s our funding.
“Hats-off thank you for all the help we’ve gotten from the Northwest Maritime Center,” he added. “Catherine Leporati [registrar and office assistant] has been an angel.”
The PT shanty singers began meeting about three years ago. Lee Erickson contacted James through Crossroads Music and asked him if they could put together a book of sea shanties to collect the work of Stephen Gottlieb Lewis, who sang sea shanties for two nights of the Wooden Boat Festival each year until he died. He had several notebooks of collected lyrics. With layout help from Ellie Matthews and Carl Youngman, and a $1,500 grant from the PT Friends of the Arts, the Sing Shanties Songbook Committee produced a 6-by-9-inch, 140-page, spiral-bound book, “Sing Shanties & Songs About the Sea.” It’s $11.95 at the NWMC Chandlery, and copies are available to borrow during sing-alongs.
“So we put the book together and started sending out flyers,” James said. “The first night, we had 120 people show up.”
There’s a different leader each month, such as Mark Olson, who sailed as an officer aboard the brig Lady Washington for many years and knows a wealth of nautical history; J.W. Sparrow from Pierce County; the Shifty Sailors, a group of Whidbey Island shanty singers; Dano Quinn, a Seattle-based merchant mariner; and Tugboat Bromberg of Poulsbo, a big pirate with a great hat and a guitar who performed at the 2014 Boat Festival at the Wee Nip, the small bar at the end of Point Hudson. An all-female group from Vancouver, B.C., the Lazy Jacks, hopes to lead the singalong when the weather improves, James reported.
“It’s just a great outlet for me to sing,” said Steve Blakeslee, a longtime sailor who joins in each month. “And hang out with like-minded derelicts,” joked James.
People come from Victoria, Sequim, Port Angeles, Poulsbo and Olympia. “A significant percentage of newbies” each month, Blakeslee said. Sometimes, passengers on the seasonal cruise ship that ties up to Union Wharf attend.
Jim Scarantino started coming when he saw a poster for the group at the Chimacum Café.
“It just sounded like plain old fun,” he said. “I became captivated with the stories and the history; fun and haunting melodies.”
The songs are historical repositories, rich with detail about life at sea and exotic places, from South Australia to the Northwest Passage, and, like all folk music, a ration of philosophy. “Growl you may but go you must,” one runs. Another warns, “Whiskey made me pawn me clothes / Whiskey gave me a broken nose.”
A loose group also performs by invitation. (See singshanties.com.) They sang at the PT Yacht Club’s Christmas party, sang in June for the Washington State Historical Museum Society’s convention in PT, sang for a group at Fort Worden and for a group of middle school kids embarking on a week of instruction at the Maritime Center.
“Have shanties, will travel,” quipped “Tug” Buse who with his son, Willie, 9, is an enthusiastic regular.
Although shanties can be associated with vulgarity, the PT shanty sing-alongs are family-friendly. “There are so many different versions” of each song, James said. “And some are very profane.” But the songs are easily adaptable, and the group sings “G-rated” versions.
The green-eyed and good-natured James can feign testiness about people who put shanties down. “Shanties were thought of as barroom songs put together by amateurs,” he said. “I will call it an art form and I will have a duel with anyone who says it isn’t.”
Like any folk art, shanties reflect the culture of their makers, and life on the rolling deep was one of travel, adventure, occasional great danger and often harsh conditions, and great intimacy with the natural world, with one’s companions, and, above all, with the ship.
There are many kinds of shanties, with rhythms to suit different tasks, such as “short hauls” or “drag shanties,” rowing shanties, and “stamp and go” capstan shanties with a little “skip” in the rhythm for people to step over the anchor chain or rope around the capstan (a human-powered winch set on its side). Ballad-like songs of lament, “forebitters,” may be named for the fore bitts, stout posts at the front end that make a convenient seat for sad souls singing about the pleasures of whiskey, the harshness of life, the sweetness of Holly or Molly or Sally or Sue, or Paradise itself, land of free beer, “where the skies are all clear and there’s never a gale.”
There are occasional guitarists at the monthly PT sing-alongs, including James. “But the guitar was not a traditional instrument,” he said. Chris Gilbert, who hails from London, has been bringing his barron, an Irish hand-held drum. A concertina, invented in 1829, or harmonica (1850s) may sometimes appear. In the 1700s and early 1800s, a pre-steam era known as the golden age of sail, fiddles and pennywhistles would have been common accompaniments.
At the PT sing-alongs, chairs are arranged in a rough circle, and folks take turns requesting a song.
“The more people who come, the more fun it is,” Hagar said.
“You have options. You can sing, lead, request a song, or pass,” said James, who spent 40 years working in schools. “Our circle really is for everybody, not just those that sing.”
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