November 27, 2010

Sea Shanties in Halifax!

Why did we decide to go to Nova Scotia this summer? We were drawn by the Celtic music and the nautical heritage! The deep maritime traditions of the eastern coastline include music, too. There could hardly be a saltier location than the waterfront Museum of the Atlantic to host the Halifax Harbor Sea Music Festival. Sadly, day one was canceled due to hurricane Earl, but Sunday was sunny, glorious and full of music.

Sea shanties celebrate the nautical life. You get a pat on the back if you know what they are; a big hooray if you sing ‘em now and then!
 Halifax A Pirate's Fate 2Shanties were songs sung by seamen in the days of sail to coordinate routine tasks that had to carried out handily and rhythmically. When hauling a line, rowing a boat, lifting an anchor or pulling a heavy sail aloft, the shantyman led a song to maintain the pace while the crew sang the chorus. Songs talked about about life aboard, yearnings for home, heroism, myths and distant ports. Sailors boasted or made fun of the crew. They sang about battles and pirates. Harmony, unity, celebration of history, eulogy, community, tragedy and nostalgia – all these plus a good bit of craziness and a dose of the bawdy are embraced in sea shanties. 

Shanty Krewe KathiI thank K.C. King, a fellow concertina player and founder of the NO Quarter Shanty Krewe (a name with New Orleans and nautical allusions) for teaching me about the music and getting me to sing with the group back in 2003. As he insisted, “enthusiasm trumps talent,” so I qualified. Here we were before Hurricane Katrina somewhat depleted our ranks. We even sang at Jazzfest once – in the Kids’ Tent!


Enough, back to the Halifax festival and some of the singers we met! Sea shanties from mariners worldwide were passed on orally as sailors went from ship to ship and port to port. Nowadays, many are re-discovered in old music collections. Bob Walser, singer and music historian, told us the history of one you know, The Sloop John B.
Depending on your age you might have learned the song from The Kingston Trio (1958) or The Beach Boys (1966). The Beach Boys’ version was ranked #271 on Rolling Stone's list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. But it’s way older! It was in a 1927 collection of songs by Carl Sandburg, and in a field recording Alan Lomax made in Nassau in 1935. It seems that there was an old Bahamas sponger boat called the John B (see some here) whose crew always got wildly jolly whenever they made port. She was wrecked and sunk in Eleuthera about 1900. An illustrious history!  Check it out on Wikipedia. Bob is on the right above, with Geoff Kaufman, singer-songwriter and member of the shanty group Forebitter.
Sea songs and shanties are still written today. Alastair Macdonald creates beautiful, emotive songs about nautical life along Nova Scotia’s shores.
Here are Tom Lewis, Bob, and Melanie Ross. 

And Debra Cowan; then the group Pitch’n Timbre. We sang along with them all, too many to show. Here are bios of them all.


The evening concert brought all the singers onstage. Afterward, those who couldn’t bear to go home gathered at the Hart & Thistle to wind down, chat and get better acquainted. Quite late in the evening someone found a homesick Boston sailor at a table alone. Everyone gathered around and put music to work cheering us all, beginning with the melancholy “Grey Funnel Line” (by Ciril Tawney). We got in several more before the pub closed and cast us out. It was simply a perfect day!

                    And all the time, I was thinking of you Shanty Krewe, wherever y’all are!
P.S. I’m excited! While we’re here in New Orleans, the NO Quarter Shanty Krewe will sing in a historic New Orleans home for the Holiday Home Tour on December 11 and 12! This will be a blast!

1 comment:

Verified said...

Hey folks!
Thanks for the nice posts on your experiences here in Halifax with the Sea Music festival (sorry about that little hurricane thing...we will try not to do it next time)
Safe travels and congrats on the new "home base"