Saturday, July 14, 2012

Shanties as Oral History

The Longwinded Shantyman

Photo by Rande Gjerstad - The children still gather to listen

  My next-door-neighbor Earl is 98 years old. Earl tells a story of breaking his arm when he was a boy. He remembers that day vividly because the trip to the doctor was his very first ride in a car. Imagine that, Earl’s parents, just one generation back in time, had grown up without ever seeing cars. In that very recent past, most of the world could not afford a cart, much less a horse. It would be a banner day indeed to travel by coach. This situation must have impacted people’s world view tremendously. What truly mattered, the “scope” of our ancestor’s existence, was the distance that could be traveled in half a day, on foot - then you must turn around, if you were to safe at home by nightfall. That truth scaled the size of communities and shaped our collective mindset. A sad fact was that a good portion of the population was illiterate - what was beyond the horizon could not travel to you in the form of a book.

  In this world walked, (or rode) the travelers. Those men moving from inn to lodge, fort to garrison, carrying news, language and songs. What must have those rare bards been like to those with an experience spanning a mere 30 miles? The maps, stories, strange new words and songs they would bring would be as memorable as Earl’s first ride in that car. The traveler might have even seen a city, or a snow-topped mountain - things almost impossible to believe.

  Now, imagine a sailor coming into the village. He is not a traveler on horseback, bringing news from hundreds of leagues distant. No, this strange man is telling stories of the far side of the world. He speaks casually of people of different colors, of mountains that smoke, of salt water without end. At first you think him mad, but the elders of the village say others like him have come this way before, with similar stories, words and songs.

  And that is the crucial point: reinforcement. Everything out of his mouth is memorable and will be repeated, everywhere he goes. Your village may die out, victim of a killer plague - your whole world, its unique words, customs, and language, destroyed in a few months, but not the sailor’s. His world is everywhere. His words are sprinkled all around the globe, waiting for a parallel development to again push that term to the fore, reinforcing it yet again. Or perhaps with some expressions the continuity will never be lost and people will never stop using them, we will just forget their origins.

  I wonder if his songs will ever die? Will the tunes he ground out to pass the time while on watch stay with us over the centuries? Will there come a day when folks gather in a circle and remember the first world traveler, his words and his stories of far-away places? Maybe the leader of the circle will keep track of the time on an instrument named after those long lonely hours our first shantyman spent on deck, watching the sea and sky…

Who knows?

Mark Olson