Chesapeake born or Chesapeake bred, a growing number of songsters are creating a body of Chesapeake Bay music to rival any New England chanteyman’s repertoire.
I’m hardly a dispassionate observer of the Chesapeake Bay music scene. I’ve been involved in it now for going on 20 years as a promoter, producer and proliferator. I spent the better part of my childhood with a six-string guitar (actually, mine only had five strings), baying at the moon from a dock on Spa Creek. It’s small wonder that the creeks and rivers and the people who work them crept inevitably into my homespun repertoire. Growing up in these parts, smelling the seaweed at low tide, watching the crabbers grumble up and down their trotlines, sheeting in a genoa on a fair windward leg, I can’t help but try to project my world into words. Some people call it art. My mother calls it a defective gene-from my father, of course. So when it comes to Chesapeake Bay music, maybe I’m the perfect person to tackle the subject. At least you’d have to admit that I have an interesting perspective on the whole affair.
When my first Chesapeake song fell out of my head and landed on paper-it was my song about the islands: Tilghman, Tangier, Smith, Hooper, Deal-I felt an unmistakable thrill. I was publishing BaySailor magazine back then (my mom says I obviously had too much time on my hands), and my work put me on the waterfront in a more direct and universal way than I had ever been before. Sure, I knew my dad’s boatyard inside and out, but now I was getting to know them all. I’d started my adult life, such as it is, as a sailmaker-solitary, inside work. Publishing my own magazine got me back out on the docks, talking with people and just breathing in the air (the fumes, Mom says). I became very possessive of the Chesapeake Bay waterfront: It was my world. How come, I says to myself, how come no one has ever written any songs about this world? And then, plunk, out it came, “Islands in the Sun”:
When I sail away today,
I’ll set my course for south
With the tide I’ll ride the wind
Out to the river’s mouth
Then down the Bay I’ll sail away,
Wing-and-wing I’ll run
Until I see ahead of me,
My islands in the sun
Smith, Hooper, Deal
Steeples in the summer sky,
Lilies in the field
On your shores I’ll drop my sails
I’ll drop my anchor ‘round
And let your comfort cover me
Till the sun goes down . . .
Well, that little ditty turned on my faucet and suddenly a torrent of tunes spilled out-songs about my own experiences, songs about the people I knew and songs about the lives we lived. I teamed up with songwriter-singer-poet-writer Jeff Holland (probably even more genetically defective than I) and we turned into Crab Alley, a folk group that included the silver-throated siren Chris Noyes and, variously over the years, Dodie Welsh Parris, Bob Ebling, Ron and Robin Kurtz, and Kevin Brooks. We tried to find authentic Bay songs-indeed, that was our founding purpose-but we discovered very little out there. Left to our own devices, we began cranking out original material-tomorrow’s traditions today, we called it. Much to my mother’s chagrin, people liked what we were doing and begged-or at least clapped politely-for more. Crab Alley produced two cassettes of original work and played at festivals, bars and parking lots all over the Bay.
As it turns out, we weren’t the only ones writing Bay songs. Tom Wisner had been doing it long before we could even tune our guitars. And certainly we weren’t the only ones looking for the “real thing.” Alan Lomax, the relentless folk music documentarian and recorder, may have been the first to arrive on the scene with a notebook and microphone back in the 1930s. Since then the quest for authentic Chesapeake Bay songs, old or new, has been going on in earnest, but they’ve been as elusive as Sir Galahad’s Grail.
Until recently. Within the last 25 years, individual artists and bands from throughout the region have spontaneously begun presenting material reflecting their own deep love and commitment to the Chesapeake Bay-as an entity of its own or as a backdrop for human activities ranging from crabbing to cruising. With the emergence in the 1970s of Tom Wisner’s album “Chesapeake Born” (Folkways) and the 1990 release by the Maryland Environmental Trust of “BayFolk,” a compendium of Bay music by local artists (including such luminaries as Baltimore-born Mary Chapin Carpenter), the concept of Chesapeake Bay music has taken on a rhythm of its own. Loosely defined, for the purposes of this story at least, let’s say that Chesapeake Bay music refers to folk renderings of Chesapeake life and ecology, songs that tell the Bay’s story one way or another.
Ginger Hildebrand, an Annapolis-area musician who tours internationally with her husband David, is one of the “professionals” who has staked her career on regional music. She’s excited about the new wave of Chesapeake songwriters and the proliferation of Bay material. “It’s about time,” she says. “Chesapeake songwriters have a lot of catching up to do.” Decked out in Colonial garb and toting a bandwagon of antique and reproduction instruments, the Hildebrands perform musical selections they’ve carefully culled from historic archives. Their recent albums include “George Washington, Music for the First President” and “Over the Hills and Far Away,” a collection of music from 18th-century Annapolis. “The eighteenth century was so alive with music,” Hildebrand continues. “We have material that we know was written locally-here in Annapolis or over in Chestertown [Md.]. But it’s all different musical styles, and none that deals directly with the water. The Colonial psyche just didn’t elevate the Bay into the realm of music. When it comes to finding historical music that reflects the seafood industry or Bay ecology, there’s been a major void.” These days, Hildebrand is excited about the abundance of material that’s suddenly appearing. “Not only does it give me something to sing, but it means that when future generations look back, they’ll actually find something that reflects the way we think and feel about the Bay today.”
Meanwhile, the dearth of old-time Bay tunes has been a puzzle. While the sailors of the New England whaling fleet were frigging in the rigging or blowing the man down, their Chesapeake counterparts seem to have remained starkly silent. At least, to the dismay of those of us who have tried to ferret it out, that’s what the record shows. The watermen passed along no traditional dredging songs, no tonging ditties, no paeans to the almighty blue crab. Menhaden fishermen on the LowerBay and along the Carolina coast sang together to haul up their nets (and sing together still on occasion), but the fisheries of the Middle and UpperBay have left little that can be identified as a melodic legacy.
Why? The consensus boils the answer down to three possibilities. First, contemporary watermen themselves will tell you that neither their boats nor their work lend themselves to singing. “[We’re] too damned tired to sing,” says Ed Farley, captain of the skipjack H. M. Krentz out of Tilghman. Skipjacks and bugeyes, he says, can be ably handled by a few men. The sails aren’t too heavy to haul with brute force, and the oyster dredges are brought up quickly and mechanically. “There’s no question of pacing yourself,” he points out. “You want to get that dredge up and empty so it can go back down again. There’s no reason to establish a working rhythm with a song.”
Farley began dredging under Captain Art Daniels in 1972 on the skipjackCity of Crisfield out of Wenona, Md. “Now, Captain Art was a lay minister of the Methodist church,” he says, “and he’d often sing hymns while we were working. Two of his men, ‘Littly’ [Clarence] Harris and Elmer Jones, would get to singing snatches of hymns to keep themselves going as the day wore on. But that’s the only kind of singing I ever heard on Chesapeake boats.”
David Hildebrand also recognizes hymn singing as a persistent element in traditional Bay settings, an element that could explain why Chesapeake Bay music never flourished. Hildebrand is one of many who has tried to uncover authentic Bay music. With a master’s degree from GeorgeWashingtonUniversity and a doctorate in musicology from CatholicUniversity, he has spent years searching for songs and melodies that could be traced definitively to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. He interviewed dozens of people, scoured libraries and was aghast at what little he came up with that pertained to Bay fisheries.
He points to, among other things, the strong spiritual movement that flamed through the Chesapeake region in the l800s. “Working people on the Bay were deeply affected by the evangelical revivals,” he says. “Hymn singing was a huge part of that. You can hear it today in the crabhouses, where the women will sing as they pick the crabs.” The religious fervor, he says, might well have put a damper on more secular singing.
The third possibility as to why there’s such a lack of Bay music is more disheartening. “Whether we like it or not,” Hildebrand says, “the prejudices of times past may have something to do with why we don’t have much Bay material to work from. Whites may well have been intimidated by the powerful singing of their black neighbors; but even [if they hadn’t been], they would have discounted it as second-rate . . . certainly not bothered to write any of it down.”
Certainly the old aristocracy flourished around the Chesapeake, especially in the more remote reaches of the Eastern Shore, Southern Maryland and Tidewater Virginia. While New England reflected the values of its growing middle class-fostering public education, for example, and the creation of a generally literate society-the Chesapeake remained a world of haves and have-nots. Working class people of the Bay, those who worked the water and the soil, may have had a rich oral tradition, but without the ability to record the words or write out the music, it has either vanished or has been co-opted by other traditions. There are several “New England” chanteys, for example, that speak specifically of Baltimore and Norfolk. It’s possible that these could have originated on the Bay and were carried north by more literate sailors.
Only a few songs have come down to us that unquestionably derive from the Chesapeake experience. The most notable was written in Baltimore harbor in 1814 and, as was the custom of the day, adapted to the melody of a popular British drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” In fact, as many as 85 different songs were ascribed to this melody between the 1770s, when it first appeared, and 1814, but while most lapsed into obscurity long ago, “The Star-Spangled Banner” still gets plenty of play. Another ditty, “The Shanghaied Dredger,” was reputedly found in the bottom of an old seaman’s trunk. It didn’t have any music with it, but a group called the Boarding Party, chanteymen from the Washington area (now disbanded), worked out the melody for it and sang it regularly. It’s rollicking chorus runs along these lines:
Then lay me in the forepeak
With my face toward Baltimore
Praying I never get shanghaied again
Down on the Eastern Shore
Where they feed you on corndog
And sowbelly twice a day
And you’re counted a lucky dredger
If you ever get your pay . . .
Unscrupulous oyster dredgers often filled out their crews by shanghaiing unsuspecting immigrants from the wharfs in Baltimore. The “unlucky” dredgers were the ones paid off by the boom-that is, they were knocked overboard by a well timed jibe.
Bob Zentz, a puckish Norfolk singer-songwriter (more about him later), did some sleuthing around his neck of the Bay and discovered an old James River bateau-man’s song to add to the Chesapeake repertoire. “Mr. Brown” was a minstrel show standard in the 1840s, when music from the workplace first began making the transition to popular entertainment. But its reference to “OleJimRiver” (the James) and Lynchburg, Va., place it squarely within the Chesapeake watershed:
I’m old Mr. Brown
Just in from the south
At the time of the drought
But times they got
So hard in the place
That I never dared to show my face
It’ll never do to give it up, so . . .
I’m watching Tom Wisner-a big, burly man who looks like an overgrown hobbit-sticking his arms out over his head to look like a chart of Bay rivers and singing out their names. “Susquehanna, Wicomico, South, Severn, Nanticoke, Choptank and Elk,” he chants. “We are born of Potomac out of old Shenandoah, and the York, Rappahannock and James.” His audience beams with pleasure. In happy imitation people start flinging their own arms every which way, and suddenly this small tent on the banks of the WestRiver has become a dangerous place. We’re at the Captain Salem Avery House in Shady Side, Md., celebrating West River Heritage Day with music and an oyster feast, and Wisner is leading his listeners in call-and-response songs and teaching them the simple choruses of his Bay tunes.
Those of us who “do” Chesapeake music consider Wisner the dean of today’s Bay troubadours. He began writing songs in the 1960s out of a longing, as he puts it, to say something about the rivers and waterways that he calls home. Working as the educator and public liaison for the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons, Md., he saw how art could draw people together and connect them to the natural world. So he began using music, stories and poetry to paint his own picture of the Bay. For him it has been a deeply spiritual process. “I view myself as a life-long celebrant who’s immersed in the story of the majesty of this region and of my fit into that story,” he says. “I’m on a journey, and that journey has something to do with finding my way through the arts, to connecting with creation.”
Wisner’s best known tune is “Chesapeake Born,” first heard by many as the title song for the National Geographic television special, “Chesapeake Borne,” which aired in 1986. Its lyrics have become an anthem for the Chesapeake Bay ecology movement:
I’m Chesapeake born,
And flowing with ease.
I’m Chesapeake born
And bound to thee,
Deed I am,
Chesapeake free . . .
Simplicity is probably Wisner’s hallmark. He shuns the concert hall for the chance to work in small groups or where people are actually gathered around the water, like here in Shady Side. With limited formal training in music, he attributes his abilities to a childhood spent listening to hymns and simple country songs on his uncle’s front porch near Scottsville-on-James. “Singing together,” he says, “bonds us to place, family, culture and time.” With that always in mind, he frames lyrics that reflect our relationship to the Bay and what it offers us by way of spiritual solace and renewal:
I’m the son of the rain,
Brother of the wind
Follow on the water,
Got tobacco on my chin
I seen forty years of sunshine,
Wind and rain
If I had a chance,
I’d do it all again . . .
Another contemporary troubador, Bob Zentz, a little travel-weary today, is sitting in my living room, picking away on one of the most beautiful guitars I’ve ever seen and telling me the story of his life. (They all tell me the story of their life eventually; what can I say?) He too sings about a deep connection with the natural world, often offering us a reminder that the Bay is in deep trouble. He also tells funny stories and recites poetry. What’s not to like about this guy?
“I didn’t think much about [the Bay, the environment] really,” he tells me, “until I found myself in L.A., where I’d been hired to work on the ‘Smothers Brothers Show.’ Remember the ‘Smothers Brothers Show?’ “ Even I remember the “Smothers Brothers Show.”
“It was right before it folded. So there I am in L.A. without a job and realizing that it wasn’t where I wanted to be, so I went back to Norfolk.”
Growing up at the mouth of the Bay, Zentz had watched the stevedores load and unload the oceangoing vessels that routinely stopped in Hampton Roads. “The context for those of us on the lower part of the Bay is of cargo ships coming and going,” he says. A lot of his imagery is gateway imagery, and his love for the ships and the sailors is, as he says, integrated into “who I am.” He has since made a career out of writing and playing songs about working people, including the men and women who work the water. “The Chesapeake Bay and her tributaries affect our jobs, our appetites, our weather, our leisure time and our very souls,” Zentz says, kind of summing things up. “And we, in turn, make our mark above and below the tideline of this sometimes fragile, sometimes tranquil, sometimes violent, but ever awe-inspiring eco-system.” He wrote a song out in L.A. called “This Old Earth,” which he subsequently reworked as “This Ol’ Bay.” Its call for environmental reform stands as his own signature piece for the Chesapeake:
Saw the sun rise on the ocean
Watched the sun set on the Bay
Thought of time and tides and people
The past, the future and today
This ol’ Bay has seen a lot of livin’
This ol’ Bay, the stories she could tell
But this ol’ Bay is finished with the givin’
This ol’ Bay we used so well . . .
And then, there’s my friend Jeff Holland. Just picture him for a minute: this guy who looks more like Falstaff than Elvis, yet he’s all puffed up in his black leather jacket and wraparound shades, doing his raucous rendition of an Ego Alley muscle-boater. The “nine gold chains tangled in his chest hair” gleam in the stage lights while he sings:
I’m a man,
I make my own decisions
I’m a man,
I don’t need no revisions
To the guys I’m cool,
To the ladies I’m a vision
In my hot vice boat,
Just like on television . . .
Holland writes songs (many of them funny) about the people who
work and play on the Bay, who just enjoy getting out on the water any way they can. Like me, he was mystified by the lack of traditional Bay songs to choose from when he was first moved to croon about the view from the cockpit. “Everytime I go for a boat ride,” he says, “I feel like writing a song about it. It boggles my mind that there aren’t more people doing what we do.” His lively tunes run the gamut from the “Deckshoe Sea Chantey” (Sperry-o, Sperry-o, Sperry-o, Sebago . . .) to a tango about subaquatic vegetation.
Holland’s best-known song, “Back Creek Crab,” also got national attention on “Chesapeake Borne” (performed on the TV special by David and Ginger Hildebrand). It sums up the quintessential Bay experience-chicken-necking off an old pier:
I’m gonna get my bucket
And a chicken neck
An old piece of string
And my old pole net
I’m going down to Back Creek,
I’m gonna get me some crabs.
Goin’ down to Back Creek,
Sit on a pier
Dangle my line
While I sip on a beer
I’m goin down to Back Creek
I’m gonna Back Creek crab . . .
Holland cares deeply about the environment, but he doesn’t want to hit people over the head with weighty messages. “Using humor makes the same point without being heavy-handed and depressing,” he says. The very quirks and idiosyncrasies that become, so often, the focus of his songs, do as much to show how distinct and unique this region is as any eco-anthem. “I celebrate the fun of being on the water, the joy that people gain from their connection with the Bay,” he says. “When people hear a song that legitimizes their feelings about something-well, what it boils down to is this: If a place is worth singing about, it’s worth saving.”
Et tu Brute? I have a feeling that any of the singer-songwriters who are today putting their feelings about the Bay into music would echo the same sentiment in one way or another. Music can focus our attention faster than any speech, any textbook, any journalistic tirade. Moreover, it’s so much easier to hum.