Do you remember? Did you attend our very first Song Circle where we gathered in the Chandlery/Cafe area of the Northwest Maritime Center back on January 6, 2011? Nearly a hundred folks crowded together, sitting on chairs, on the floor, standing where ever they could. Good times!
Though crowded, anywhere from forty to a hundred folks, everyone loved that we were able to sing in a maritime environment. This was the perfect venue for such a community event and most certainly fit the mission of the Northwest Maritime Center - "to engage and educate people of all generations in traditional and contemporary maritime life, in a spirit of adventure and discovery."
When the cafe management changed, we moved upstairs to the Maritime Meeting Room, a room with a sweeping view of the bay and more space to create a true song circle. Even of a warm summer's night with Concert on the Dock happening across the park new folks trickled in out of curiosity, wandering upstairs following the wave of robust singing filtering out through the doors. Seventy-five folks filled the chairs and joined in the singing. More good times!
I am very pleased to announce that starting on February 6 of 2014, we will once again be holding our Sing Shanties Song Circle upstairs at the Northwest Maritime Center in the Marine Room - West, from 6:00-8:00 p.m. We will also be hosting a Sing Shanties Workshop from 5:00-6:00 p.m. just prior to our group shanty sing. Anyone is welcome to attend - this is the perfect opportunity to learn along with others some of those traditional maritime songs in our songbook that no one ever seems to know!
Through the end of this year, 2013, we will continue to meet at the Uptown Community Center on Tyler Street from 6:00-8:30 p.m on November 7 (Dan Roberts leads) and December 5 (Dano Quinn leads) [Calendar]. Although we won't be meeting every first Thursday of the month in 2014, as we have for the past couple of years, we will continue to meet on the first Thursday of the month on February 6, May 1, August 7 and November 6. Thank you to the Northwest Maritime Center for continued support and sponsorship for our maritime community gatherings. If all goes well, the NWMC will remain our permanent home for our seasonal shanty sings, four times a year! Our song circles will continue to be free, family-friendly community events, where "singin' is encouraged, but knot required!"
Please take a moment to read what Jake Beattie, Executive Director of the NWMC & Wooden Boat Foundation, wrote as the foreword to our Sing Shanties & Songs About the Sea songbook, published in 2012.
Nearly every book of shanties includes a well-written passage that describes the value of work songs for traditional ship’s work. I’ve read that shanties were as good as having an extra crewmember on the halyard, and that shanties were the only way that sailors could publicly express discontent with the officer ranks. This could be true, and likely is, but while I have given an enthusiastic voice to these old songs more than a few times as crew on traditional ships, it was always as much as a re-enactment as the vessels themselves. While I’ve been onboard more than one vessel with a captain whose lack of ability was only surpassed by their ego, I’ve never faced capital punishment for saying so. As much as I read, and as close to the original experience as I’ve gotten sailing and working in traditional maritime education, for me the true value of shanties in our modern times can be boiled down to a single word: community.
It’s been years since I’ve given up the quarterdeck and began managing maritime programs from the office. They don’t make shanties extolling the arduous navigation of a tough budget year, but as the first Thursday of the month rolls around, voices from the shanty sing downstairs rise up through the floorboards and lift my spirits. Downstairs, on good nights, there are as many as 80 people sharing in the community of song. Even on the nights where there are fewer each person is connecting to the simple melodies in their own way, out of their own experience, but doing so in a way that draws them closer to those around them. Outside of church services and baseball games, sharing in song is increasingly rare in a world full of social media, guarded irony, and entertainment largely left to professionals. You can connect with multitudes of online “friends” through short updates about your cat, but I would argue that song is more a powerful way to build community since it draws people together through the celebration, courage, and vulnerability of looking your neighbor in the eyes and offering your voice alongside of theirs. Shanty circles are a chance to do just that.
Shanties are songs of hardship, of victory, of toil and mockery. They are songs of participation that are better to sing along with than to watch performed. For better and worse, the age of sail is an echo of a memory generations removed from anyone who actually worked under the conditions in which these songs were created. We can't possibly connect with their original meaning and purpose. Yet, despite that they are a vestige, despite that for all of the scholarly research, I will never as a modern individual understand them in the same context as the sailors who created them. When a heartfelt group gathers to join in the fellowship of songs of the sea, at that moment at least a part of me is part of the crew that is bound for South Australia.
Keep on Singin' Shanties!