Mainers Are Working To Give Historical Sea Chanteys New Life
The sea chantey, once the soundtrack of the Golden Age of Sail, has gone the way of other traditional work songs — relegated to folk festivals, history museums and a few tourist schooners. But in Midcoast Maine, chanties that have sat in the archives for nearly one hundred years are getting a new life and being put back to work on Penobscot Bay.
At a private home in Northport, Bennett Konesniis teaching a sea chantey to a group of about ten singers.
“The chorus goes like this — ‘Wayyyheeyyaayyyy YA!’ Try it,” Konesni says.
Konesni is a musician and farmer from Belfast, and he is the founder of the Worksong Community Chorus. Its mission, he says, is to bring work songs of all kinds out of the archives and back into use on the farm, on the water or by the woodpile. In recent years, Konesni has focused on reviving maritime work songs — better known as sea chanties, or simply as chanties.
“Well at the root of sea chanties is the call and response format,” Konesni says. “Might be a direct call and response where they just sing exactly what the chanteyman sang, or it could be something slightly different.”
Konesni was introduced to chanties as a teenager while working on schooners. This is where he learned that specific chanties match the rhythm of different tasks. For example, he says that he discovered that raising the anchor with a hand-cranked machine called a windlass creates a slow and steady beat that gave a structure to the song.
“You create a rhythm it’s like chunk, chunk, chunk — so we might sing a song like ‘Oh Cape Cod girls don’t use no combs/Heave away, haul away!/They comb their hair with the codfish bones/And we’re bound away for Australia,’” he sings.
Traditionally, these songs were led by a chanteyman, usually a member of the crew, and they would be sung only while working.
“They felt it was wrong, and even bad luck, to sing a chantey when you weren’t working,” explains Stephen Sanfilipo of Pembroke.
Sanfilipo and his wife, Susan, are part of a small but passionate community of sea music experts. He says chanties helped sailors do their work but also gave them cover to openly complain about and even make fun of the ship’s captain and officers.
“It’s subversive,” Sanfilipo says. “They sing out at their work, and they, very often, in a chantey, in a way that they couldn’t in speech, are highly critical.”
One not-so-subtle example of this subversion can be found in the song “From New York Harbor,” where one verse jokes about throwing the captain overboard as shark food.
The chantey tradition had its heyday during the mid to late 18oos, when global trade relied on huge wooden sailing ships, many of which were built in Maine.
Cipperly Good, a curator at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, says Maine also supplied a lot of the manpower to sail those ships.
“I like to think of the Maine captains and crews, they were like the tractor trailer drivers of today,” Good says.
This period, before the advent of steamships, is known as the Golden Age of Sail.
“It’s that romantic version of sailing around Cape Horn, sailing to China,” says Good. “And so those of us alive today who wish we were back then, it’s the Golden Age.”
One Searsport resident who did live through the Golden Age of Sail was Joanna Colcord. Colcord was actually born at sea in 1882 on her father’s ship during a voyage from New York to Japan. She spent the first 18 years of her life at sea, and she went on to found the Penobscot Marine Museumwith her brother.
"Joanna helped capture what life was like at sea,” says Good. “And she was able to write it down in books and articles, she captured the sea chanties.”
Today, Colcord’s chantey book is an important source of primary material for Bennett Konesni’s Worksong Chorus.
“It’s really neat to think of sort of connecting the community through sound,” says Konesni. “Connecting people who live on the shore back to the ocean through that sound and back through time, through those songs.”
This summer, the chorus will put the songs back to work on a 38-foot wooden rowboat in Penobscot Bay, and on farms in and around Waldo County. For the chanties once heard from Searsport to Singapore, it’s a small but vocal comeback.
Originally published May 16, 2019 at 4:46 p.m. ET.