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Thursday, July 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Singalongs and shipboard concerts are a good-time history lesson

Special to The Seattle Times

Listen to a salty tune


The Cutters:

Roll Down

Rant & Roar

Crooked Mile:

Rolling down to Old Maui

Bound for South Australia

A single high-pitched note pierces the murmur of a group of 30 or so people in the wood shop at Seattle's South Lake Union Park. Dan Roberts blows his bosun's whistle, and the crowd quiets down. He explains that the main rule of the Friday-night chantey sing boils down to this:

"If two people start a chantey, the loudest person wins," he says. "The loser gets to start the next chantey."

Roberts hosts a monthly singalong of sailor work songs, also called chanteys, sponsored by Northwest Seaport. The free event ($5 donation requested) attracts the region's leading folk musicians and fans who keep alive a tradition that almost died out with the end of commercial sailing ships. It's the only program of its kind in the Northwest, organizers say. The nearest similar program is in San Francisco.

On a cool evening in June, Roberts stands amid coarse sawdust, worn woodworking tools and a small white dog. He introduces Portland singer Mary Benson, who leads the crowd with a will in a song about the mythical sailor, Stormalong:

Stormy, he is dead and gone.
Chorus: Walk me along, John, carry me along.
Stormy, he is dead and GONE!
Chorus: Carry me to the burying ground.
All: Then away-ay-ay-ay-ay, Stor-or-or-my.
Walk me along, John, carry me along.
Then away-ay-ay-ay-ay, Stor-or-or-my!
Carry me to the burying ground.

The men, women and children in the chorus belt out the words, not all in sync or all in tune. But that's the way the songs sounded when sailors and longshoremen used them to pace the work of hauling lines and raising anchors starting, well, no one knows. Most of the chanteys in the Friday-night singalongs come from the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the summer months, the singalongs are held aboard the historic schooner Wawona, which is undergoing restoration next to the Center for Wooden Boats.

Wawona's crew didn't sing chanteys because the heavy labor of raising her sails and anchors was done by a small engine. But the crew did enjoy music on board during her working life from 1897 to 1947. Photos from the early 1930s show men on Wawona with accordions. Don McInturf, the ship's radio operator on the fishing voyage of 1936, wrote in his diary that the accordionists played Scandinavian tunes, probably because most of the fishermen were Norwegian immigrants. On July 9, 1936, he describes a singalong in the galley with crew members playing a mouth organ, a violin and a mandolin.

"Some orchestra," he wrote. "Sang everything we knew and some that I may have known but failed to recognize from the way they were rendered. But the spirit was there anyway."

An easy comfort

On the shores of Lake Union, Tom Odell of Mercer Island is participating in the 2004 version of the singalong for the first time.

"It gets you to the roots of where the community came from and traditions that were left behind," he says. Tom's wife, Diane Odell, loves the informality. "I've never met these people, but I don't feel uncomfortable singing with them."

Volunteers such as Alice Winship of Seattle run the program, posting flyers and serving homemade cookies, workingman's coffee and "natural" soda. Winship first heard sea music, which includes chanteys, entertainment songs called "forebitters" and music-hall songs with a maritime theme, more than 10 years ago when she wandered into a Northwest Folklife Festival workshop. That sparked an interest in the schooner Wawona.

"I got into maritime history because of the music," she says.

The volunteers also encourage the crowd to support local musicians by buying CDs on display. Seattle sea-music duo William Pint and Felicia Dale are among the best-known maritime-folk-music specialists in the United States. They perform at major folk festivals around the country and travel to maritime festivals in Europe. Their latest recording, "Seven Seas," was recorded in an old English house.

"We were able to lock ourselves away in the wilds of Yorkshire," Pint says.

The couple live on a Lake Union houseboat with their red-bellied poicephalus parrot, which likes to imitate microwave dings, cellphone rings and the grating of flatware on plates. The bird is named Ranzo after another mythical character who turns up frequently in sailor songs.

Dale's father was a French sea captain who reminded her that humans are uninvited guests on the ocean. That warning and one too many falls over the side of her family's boats turned her off sailing as recreation. "Even with all my dad's skills," Dale says, "we still got into trouble."

But Pint (rhymes with "hint") and Dale have turned sea music into their life's work. Other Northwest folk groups, such as The Cutters, Broadsides and Shanghaied on the Willamette, put chanteys center stage. (Another longtime group, Victory at Sea, recently disbanded.) Few of these groups feel bound by tradition, Pint and Dale in particular. Dale adds the musically mechanical, almost shrill sound of the hurdy-gurdy to their recordings. The concertina shows up occasionally, although it was almost never used aboard ship. And the duo's tracks are laced with arrangements influenced by Pint's early love for 1960s-era rock 'n' roll bands such as The Kinks and The Who. In fact, the phrase "rock and roll" appears in many of these 19th-century songs.

"A sign of a good song is that it can stand up to a number of interpretations," Pint says. Dale adds: "We sometimes ask, 'How can we mangle this song in a new way?' "

Ever-changing form

Folk songs rarely keep the same form over the decades. And it's hard to identify another secular folk tradition practiced today that's so dependent on participation. Few Americans sing together outside of church, except perhaps "The Star Spangled Banner" at sports events. Dale knows folk clubs in England where everyone joins in the song, without self-consciousness. No one cares if you don't know the tune or the words.

"Sea music today has nothing to do with ability," Pint says, "except the ability to have fun."

Fun for the 19th century sailor (and a few modern sailors) meant sharing a drink or two or three with newly paid-off fellows at a waterfront bar. The singers at the monthly sea chantey sings keep these songs alive as well, sans grog. One man at the June chantey sing stands up front and leads everyone in a slow, steady chorus. The only things missing are the mugs of beer:

Hose me down, boys, hose me down
Roll me o'er boys, watch me drown
Watch the whirlpool suck me down, BOYS!
Hose me down, boys, ho-ose me down

Lyrics about liquor and bawdy behavior, as well as hard, low-paying work and longing for home and loved ones, reflect the day-to-day lives of the men who once sang these songs in their communities. The chanteys give perspective to modern lives by reminding the singers that complaints about the present and hopes for the future weren't so different a century or so ago.

"It's a people's music," Dan Roberts says. "It belongs to everybody."

Joe Follansbee is a Seattle-based freelance writer who collects and studies maritime music as part of research into the maritime history of the West Coast.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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