Pirate Radio 

Celebrating sea shanties: Songs of misogyny, racism, colonialism and, yes, sailing.

The sea shanty: It's not just for sailors anymore. These days, in fact, it's hardly for sailors at all.

Shanties are rarely sung to real work these days -- although their original purpose was to ease the drudgery of shipboard manual labor. But the East Bay abounds with folks who pride themselves on esoteric knowledge, songsmanship, and the ability to down a pint or three. Cornered at their favorite land-based drinking holes, they gladly walked the historical plank of rum, sodomy, and the lash to offer up their version of the truth.

Paddy lay back, take in the slack
Take a trip around the capstan, heave a pawl
About ship's stations boys be handy
For we're bound for Valaparaiso 'round the Horn

Dublin-born Shay Black, 53, lives in Berkeley and runs the Sunday night Irish session at the Starry Plough. The significance of shanties to his heritage became clear to him during his twenty-year stay in Liverpool, England, usually the first, and sometimes the last stop in Irish immigration.

"I realized the indigenous music was not the Beatles or skiffle," Black says. "It was shanty singing."

A 1976 Stan Ambrose program on Radio Merseyside enchanted Black, who then came to know Stan Hugill, one of the last true links between the sailors who sang shanties aboard ships and the landlubbing folkies who prettied them up. When Stan started, "it was just hoops and hollers and yelps," Black recalls.

Hugill -- to sea at age fourteen, merchant seaman, former POW captured by the Germans during WWII -- was the shit.

"He could speak fourteen languages," gushes Black, who recalls Hugill, aged eighty, scampering up the rigging of the Belem -- a ship used for training the French navy -- after downing a half-bottle of whiskey, all for the benefit of a French television crew. Hugill authored the four-hundred-page Shanties from the Seven Seas and other milestone works, cataloguing a disappearing oral tradition and in the process becoming the darling of the sea-music and folky crowd during the 1970s shanty revival.

Black sang the uncommon "Fiddler's Green" over Stan's grave in 1992. And then he pressed on, continuing to explore the music that fascinated Hugill as well. Black compares the shanty to the church, because "every voice is acceptable." At the Plough and with his group Nauticus, he revels in the call-and-response nature of the form.

Oh this is the tale of John Cherokee
(Ala-ba-ma John Cherokee!)

The Injun man from Miramashee
(Ala-ba-ma John Cherokee!)

With a haley high and a hauley low
(Ala-ba-ma John Cherokee!)

Often at Black's side in the Plough sessions is ruddy-faced Berkeleyan Peter Kasin, a part-time fiddler and full-time park ranger at San Francisco's Maritime National Historical Park on the Hyde Street Pier. Kasin weathered Hurricane Bob in a replica of the HMS Bounty, and once a month leads families and other stragglers in a shanty sing in the bowels of the 1886 square-rigger Balclutha, rigged at the pier.

For organizing the pier's annual Sea Music Festival, a May event featuring traditions from places as far-flung as the Georgia Sea Islands, Kasin was bestowed the National Park Services' Freeman Tilden award. Oh yes, Kasin, he savvy.

Kasin also is obsessed with shanties. He enjoys the cadence of the West Indian tunes. "You're not necessarily telling a story," he says. "You're lightening the load and creating a rhythm."

But there's also a somewhat complicated historical context to wade through. Many a crew in the great age of sail was a "checkerboard" variety, with blacks and whites working opposite shifts. Still, they were certainly aware of each other's presence.

Oh Shallow Brown, Shallow in the mornin'
Ooh, Shallow, ooh! Just as the day wuz dawnin'

"I love the rhythms and syncopation of the West Indian songs," Black concurs -- he notes their rig-a-jig chorus origins in Killarney "jaunting cart" songs. "But I also love the feeling of self-determination and self-esteem in the black shanties." He gives this Guyanese song as an example:

Essequibo River is the king of rivers all
Buddy ta-na-na we are somebody, oh!
Somebody, o, Johnny, somebody, oh
Buddy ta-na-na we are somebody, oh!

These dudes knew that on the high seas, their value was equal to anyone else's when the chips were down.

From the Barbary Coast steer clear me boys an' from ol' Larry Marr
Or else damn soon shanghaied ye'll be by Larry's five-gallon jar

"Five-Gallon Jar," or "Larry Marr," has its origins just across from the Balclutha's moorings: San Francisco's infamous Barbary Coast, where saloon-keeping scum like Marr loaded patrons' drinks with drugs. Said unfortunate drinkers often woke up five miles out to sea in the service of the Chinese tea trade -- hence the term "shanghaied" -- with little choice.

But the guys at McGrath's Irish Pub in Alameda -- an old Navy crawl in the isle's halcyon military days -- don't need to be told this. Hell, the singers at the weekly Tuesday shanty session even have a spiral-ringed notebook with the tunes' lyrics.

One of the singers also has, unfortunately, a conga drum.

Leader of this motley bunch is Dennis Willmeroth, a multi-instrumentalist who thankfully restricts his accompaniment to a tuneful banjo or guitar. Like many sailors of yore, he's intimate with the waterfront of Peru -- in his case, Peru, Illinois, his birthplace and a hub of the I&M canal, which linked the state with the eastern United States in the 19th century. "Right where the Michigan and Illinois canals connected," he notes.

"I'll play you a little song from that area," he continues, and breaks into a Stephen Foster melody, written in honor of the steamship that plied the Ohio and Mississippi rivers from Pittsburgh to New Orleans.

The Glendy Burk is a mighty fast boat
With a mighty fast captain too
He sits up on the hurricane roof
And keeps his eye on the crew

Perhaps "sea" shanties, then, is a slight misnomer. "That's why we call this session 'Sea Shanties and Songs of the Waterways,'" Willmeroth notes. He lives on the waterfront of Oakland, but belts out shanties on his US Mail truck route in San Francisco. "Several inland songs have gone out to the sea, like 'Sara Jane' and 'Shenandoah,'" he adds.

Dennis is not alone in attempting to push the shanty phenomenon inland. Hugill also devotes a section of his book to "Shanties of Railroad Origin." Without the conga, one hopes.

I handled her, I dangled her, an' found to my surprise
She was nuthin' but a fire ship, rigged up in a disguise

Over the roar of the Triple Rock Brewery's Monday night patrons (and ZZ Top blaring from the jukebox), Doug Olsen and Dave Swan of the a cappella group Oak, Ash and Thorn address important issues in shantying while making free with the ale (and nachos). "They're a natural part of our repertoire," Swan says of the shanty's significance to OAT, which still holds the beer-sale-during-a-performance record at the Freight & Salvage.

These guys are thoroughly modern oldsters, covering latter-day shantymen such as the late Canadian Stan Rogers ("Barrett's Privateers") and penning a new closing verse to the above-quoted "Fire Ship" that features a semicomical warning against venereal disease.

Swan addresses the thorny issue of interpreting the older songs: "We divide them into two groups, 'PC' and 'PF.'" (That's politically fraught, thank you.)

How you handle this division is largely a matter of personal taste. For example, Oak, Ash and Thorn -- along with the boys at McGrath's -- have no problem doing a tune like "Rolling Down to Old Maui." They did omit the following verse at a recent Freight performance, though: And now ashore we'll have good fun

We'll paint them beaches red
Awaking in the arms of a wahine
With a big fat aching head

Shay Black also takes some exception. He says that when a California shantyman recently visited Hawaii, locals refused to sing "Old Maui," with memories of depraved whalers' degradations, rapes, and murders of the natives still rather a fresh wound. Black finds nothing wrong with editing shanties like "Maui" or "Jamboree" to suit modern sensibilities: "We're not singin' aboard ship. We're singin' 150 years later for women and children."

Kasin, whose monthly sings aboard the Balclutha draw a family crowd, concurs: "You don't have to use the 'n' word. There are plenty of shanties that aren't offensive."

A few are even holiday-appropriate: Kasin recently helped mastermind the Hyde Street Pier's "Christmas at Sea" event, which gave young boys the thrill of singing about rolling around in herrings' blood and combing one's hair with herring bones.

But it's not just a boy thing. First Mate Alice Watts and Maureen McLean of San Lorenzo volunteer aboard the scow schooner Alma -- an official National Historic Landmark also docked at the Hyde. They're both huge shanty-heads.

"I listen to them in the car," McLean says. "And at home, with some shanties full blast, the house gets cleaned a lot faster!"

"Kids love it," Watts adds. "Shanties are easy to learn, and a real icebreaker." She and McLean also like modern-day sea-music groups like Seattle-based Pint and Dale, or Canada's Tom Lewis, whose tale of the Lady Washington -- the ship used in the summer blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean -- blasts over McLean's car stereo as we drive back from the Christmas at Sea.

Wrap me up in me tarpaulin jacket
And say a poor duffer's laid low
Send for six salty seamen to carry me
With steps mournful solemn and slow

Most local currents in shantying and sea music wash up at Embarcadero Cove, where Oakland's Skip Henderson leads the Starboard Watch in song each Thursday at Quinn's Lighthouse. It's all about the entertainment to Skip, a sort of modern-day Billy Bones, with his legs splayed at crazy angles while his feet stomp the peanut shells into submission and his hands rock the concertina, button box, or guitar.

Henderson performs a mere stone's throw from his boat, docked at the pier. He's also the real article, a lifelong sailor who learned "Tarpaulin Jacket" from his father. "He sings 'em in a lively, warm, and knowledgeable way," Shay Black raves of Skip. "I think he's seriously underrated."

Shay, Skip, and the rest have done their part to keep the shanty and sea music alive around the old shipyards of Oakland and San Francisco. So even if you've never experienced "Hard Times in Old Virginny" or screwed cotton down by Mobile Bay, the shanty might help you in this modern, workaday life -- in traffic on 880, sweeping up the kitchen, or keeping a steady rhythm on the ol' treadmill.

"They're compelling songs of loneliness, fear, longing, and love, sometimes dreaming about a better life," Kasin says. A perfect soundtrack, then, to California 2004.


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