The title of my presentation-paper was “Rethinking the Practical Use of Chanteys; or, Why the Charles W. Morgan’s Windlass is a Priceless Item of Historical Significance.” The text of the presentation, with references, can be read here:
Mystic Paper 2015
Admittedly, it was something of two theses in one paper. The first part argued why an emphasis on the “need” (or, practical use) of chanties in the narratives of chanty history, while provisionally useful in explaining chanties to newcomers, may ultimately inhibit progress in understanding chanties as a genre and that genre’s place in the history of music of the world. The second part argued that, not to throw the baby out with the bath-water, we can still “read” practical use as part of the texture of chanty development as long as we are willing to see it as not the primary determining factor, and I applied this idea to a reading of the importance of the shipboard device called “lever windlass.” The presentation had an overall aim to get people thinking/conversing about their assumptions—the frames of reference in which they produce discourse on chanties—and to suggest a direction for using the lever windlass on the Seaport’s whaleship Morgan in future public history interpretations. Because the Morgan’s lever windlass may be the only working one left in the world—certainly the only one at a museum that uses chanties as part of public history—there is great potential in tailoring their interpretation with new historical insights in mind.
As usual, I attended as many of the “Chanteys at Work” workshops that I could. When I wasn’t participating in the work, I was often filming (albeit this time with the subpar device of a cell phone camera). Here is a collection of clips from the working chantying demos.
A highlight of this year’s festival roster was the appearance in workshops, concerts, and a Q&A session of the Northern Neck Chantey Singers from Virginia. These five men in their 60s-80s who all at some point worked in the “menhaden” fishing industry between the 1950s and 1980s. They are currently the only group of performers to be presenting the songs sung during work at that trade. Some of the key points made in their Q&A (and in conversation after) were:
- Lyrics were ad-libbed.
- Their repertoire tended to be created by individuals during the work, later sticking through repetition. However, nowadays one would consider the canon of songs to be closed, and the group’s current repertoire consists of about a dozen of the well-known items.
- They sometimes sang the same songs at times when they weren’t working. One member, with whom I spoke afterward, clarified that (at least from his perspective) this didn’t mean they were singing the songs here and there and everywhere, but rather the songs tended to be limited to the vicinity or environment of their work. So, they might sing them while waiting around to work, while on the boat or the dock.
- They appeared (to me) to be rather tired of demonstrating the songs along with a pantomime of working (using a net as a prompt). They did this at least once in each concert, and it required that pause after each refrain. However, they seemed to prefer just being able to sing the songs straight through (in continuous meter), detached from the work reference and just as songs in and of themselves (more musically).
- The same gentleman with whom I spoke stated (in response to my question) that he did not know anybody in other trades at the time who might have been singing this or other repertoire while laboring.
Here they introduce themselves (excerpts):
The men easily adapted to singing a song that was not in their repertoire but had been in the repertoire of the “other” (no longer existing) Menhaden chanty group from North Carolina (and which, after that group’s prior visit to the Seaport, had entered the repertoire of many of the maritime music enthusiasts who frequent the festival). However, they changed the (now standardized) lyrics in at least one spot to something that (in my opinion) made more sense!
As to my own singing/performing activities this year, I attended the Thursday night pub sing and sang the chanty framework of “Roll the Cotton Down.” Following my aesthetic of “wild chants with doggerel words,” I sang it at a high pitch, overlapping solo and chorus (antiphonal style), and with a text that was completely ad-libbed, either pure improvisation or variation of my stock lyrics or themes. One of my more unusual lyrics was about people playing cards and shooting dice on the Blue Line Metro train from Los Angeles, and how one must watch out for MS-13 gang members.
The Demonstration Squad, always gracious and welcoming, permitted me to lead two chanties at the head of the halyard (pulling down). The first I did, on Charles W. Morgan, was the “Roll the Cotton Down” framework again, with improvised lyrics—I don’t remember what they were, but I experienced the “fun” discussed by Tom Turino in his writing about improvisation in participatory music, when one surprises oneself. One knows the “pull” must come—the work may not stop, as many hands are waiting to haul—but after starting the first line of the chanty one is not sure what one will say in the second line! The second one I led was on Joseph Conrad, and I believe the lyrical themes, upon the framework of “Long Time Ago,” revolved around New London, Groton, and grinders.
Directly after the Symposium, I was honored to lead a chanty for the windlass demonstration on the Morgan. I sang the classic “Mister Stormalong,” and the heavers, directed by Craig Edwards (also Moderator of the Symposium) indulged me by pumping the windlass in the historically “correct” way for that style of device and chanty. This sparked some hope that future interpretation at the Seaport might incorporate this method. On the next day (Sunday) I again led a chanty, this time “Sally Brown” for the Morgan’s windlass demo. The crew, not in the habit of doing so, was less comfortable with working it and that “correct” style. Without a load on the windlass, one has to pantomime a bit. However, there was some talk of considering finding a way to simulate the load which would make this style of work more natural and, ultimately, encourage the singing of historically appropriate chanty repertoire in its demos.
Lastly, I was part of a workshop, with Jeff Warner, Tim Reilly, and Craig Edwards, entitled “Creole America.” There was not as much time for music making in this workshop because each item required a lot of contextualization. I sang two rowing songs, one from Georgia and one from Maryland, that were documented in primary sources commenting on the canoe rowing of enslaved Africans in the early 19th century, and I matched their themes to familiar chanties, “John’s Gone to Hilo” and “Shallow Brown.”
The festival, as usual, closed with something like this: