Shanties and Sea Songs – Mystic Seaport Sea Music Festival

Word and photos: Erin Hathaway Weaver

Ken Sweeney leads a song at the after-concert pub sing.
Ken Sweeney leads a song at the after-concert pub sing.

The 34th annual Mystic Seaport Sea Music Festival got off to a soggy start, with Tropical Storm Andrea moving in after the Thursday-night opening concert and hovering over the area until the wee hours of Saturday morning. After that, the sun shone on the Seaport Museum and dried out waterlogged festival-goers as they wandered among 19th-century buildings and tree-lined paths attending performances and workshops on themes including “Work Song Traditions,” “Crime and Punishment,” and the songs of San Rogers. Aboard the ships docked at the Seaport, performers led chanteys and attendees hollered back choruses as they hauled on a rope, pushed a capstan around, or pumped a windlass.

Each evening, a concert on the main stage featured about a half-dozen performers or groups who could be found giving individual shows or contributing to workshops throughout the weekend. This year’s lineup, in addition to the familiar English-language repertoire, included groups who quickly had audiences singing along with maritime music in Dutch, Polish, and Italian. One performer marveled at the crowd’s knowledge of the music, saying, “I can tell you, ‘This is Child Ballad such-and-such’ and your eyes don’t glaze over! You probably already knew it, anyway!” In response to that interest in the stories behind the songs, the festival includes a “Music of the Sea Symposium” on Friday and Saturday mornings. From 9:00 on Friday morning, a roomful of rain-drenched people warmed themselves with free coffee in a room at the Coast Guard Academy and listened to presentations on the romanticizing of piracy in popular music of the 19th century and on the songs written by a young prisoner of war in the War of 1812.

Kapriol sing a Dutch chantey on the main stage.
Kapriol sing a Dutch chantey on the main stage.

The coffee is especially appreciated on these mornings, because most of those in attendance were up late the night before at the after-concert pub sing at the German Club across the street from the Seaport. When the main concert ends, between 10:00 and 11:00, audience and performers alike thread their way among the dark Seaport buildings, past the “village green” where kids who have been brought to Mystic by their parents year after year sit in adolescent independence on the gazebo railings. At the club, metal beer mugs are unclipped from belts and plunked down on the bar to be filled. Eventually the large room is filled with a ring of people—in chairs, standing, or sitting on the floor or the stage—and soon someone starts singing. It might be a ballad with a long chorus for everyone to join, like “The Leaving of Liverpool,” or a chantey in which all that is required of the room is a short phrase like “Haul away, Joe” or “Way-hey-ya!” that rattles the walls.

Every year, Sunday afternoon ends with a concert in which each of that year’s performers does one song, while everyone else wanders around trying to catch up with friends they haven’t had time to talk with yet, or making sure to exchange phone numbers with that person they sang with the night before, or just giving a hug goodbye and a “see you next year” to old acquaintances. This is something it has in common with all festivals, but it’s part of Mystic’s unique identity that these conversations include things like, “I wonder where this song was collected—do you think that’s the original melody?” and, with a note of sadness, “The headpiece of my hurdy-gurdy exploded.”

A chantey helps people haul on a rope together to raise the sails of the Joseph Conrad.
A chantey helps people haul on a rope together to raise the sails of the Joseph Conrad.