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October 19, 2006

Chantey Singers keep alive a maritime tradition

Daliy Press (VA):

His handshake grips like a workshop vise, his biceps bulge beneath his shirt. At 75, James U. Carter's still got it. Forty years of hauling fishing nets will do that to a man. "You know how John Henry was a steel-driving man?" said Carter. "We were net-pulling men."

In days gone by, Carter and his mates, the stout men of the menhaden fishing boats, stood shoulder to shoulder, pulling in nets heaving with thousands of pounds of fish. It was brutal, backbreaking, finger-cracking work that lasted from sunrise to sunset. They survived with their toughness. And their singing.

The fishermen sang work songs called chanteys that helped coordinate the pulling and also helped ease the burden. "They would sing to raise the heavy loads, and they would sing just for the camaraderie of singing," said Lloyd Hill, 66, who comes from a family of singing watermen. "The shared hardship would not seem as hard." Simply put, said Elton Smith Jr., another fisherman who went on to become a school principal and superintendent, the songs represented "many hands pulling together."

The introduction in the mid-20th century of hydraulic power blocks to pull up the nets began sending the large fishing crews and their work songs into the shadows of history. But the African-American tradition of chantey-singing is being kept alive by groups such as the Northern Neck Chantey Singers, former watermen who perform around the country. Seven men deep into retirement gather weekly in Elton Smith's living room in Kilmarnock to recapture the past by singing the chanteys. They gather in a circle, hold hands and say a prayer. Then they sing in heavenly harmony.

These are the Northern Neck Chantey Singers, now a group of men _ mostly in their 70s and 80s--who first gathered in the early 1990s to sing at a Fourth of July program. They've been performing ever since. "You heard that song 'We're Together, Right or Wrong'?" asked Carter, with a smile. "That's us."

The men laugh easily and speak matter-of-factly about their lives on the water, chasing schools of menhaden up and down the Atlantic coast and even into the Gulf of Mexico. From spring to fall, they were gone from home weeks at a time. Menhaden are bony, oily fish not fit for human consumption, but they have had plenty of practical uses in products such as fertilizer and animal feed, paint, cat food and fingernail polish. Reedville, on the Northern Neck, has long been the center of the menhaden processing industry, although the industry has declined in recent years.

Menhaden travel in large schools, meaning it's most efficient to catch them in nets. Efficient, but not easy, particularly in the days before machines pulled the nets onto boats. That's where the net-pulling men came in. "Those fish were heavy," said Christopher Harvey, 71. "I mean heavy." A large net brimming with fish could take a group of brawny men an hour or more to drag into the boat with the steady rhythm of chantey-singing playing an important role in the success of the catch.

African-American work songs are an ancient tradition, having a history in mining, logging and the construction of railroads and highways. The songs are largely traditional tunes, highly personalized for the specific task at hand. Many of the chanteys sung on the open water were bawdy in nature; those lyrics have been cleaned up for festival audiences.

"They sang about their shared interests," said Hill. 'They sang about pay, they sang about the boss, they sang about ladies." Going home was another shared interest. "See you when the sun goes down" is a common refrain. The songs are "narrative histories in themselves," said Harold Anderson, a folklorist and ethnomusicologist who has researched chantey-singing and will introduce the Northern Neck group at the festival.

"They represent an African-American tradition that people don't tend to think about anymore because there aren't too many situations where you can hear people singing that music," Anderson said. "They also represent something special: guys who worked really, really hard to send kids to college and provide for their families. They're pretty amazing. They may be rough in some ways, but they represent an ideal of people who valued education and worked hard."

Rehearsed in a living room or performed onstage, the a cappella chanteys convey an almost soothing tone, belying the labor that accompanied them in the boats of yesteryear. Does the singing make the singers feel nostalgic for that part of their lives? Not exactly, said James Carter. "I sing them now to forget the hard work," he said with a laugh.

Posted by acapnews at October 19, 2006 12:26 AM