Sea Music: The Launching of the MIT Chantey Sing

This past Sunday, February 2006, we had 70 people at our monthly chantey sing at the MIT Museum. One of them was a reporter from the Boston Globe who asked me the usual questions about how the sing got started, and how I got into this. It's such a long story, I said...I've loved water, music, and boats as long as I can remember, and to love something is to sing about it. But if I had to trace a line on a map of how I got from there to here, now is as good a time as any to point out some landmarks along the voyage. This sing may be newly afloat, but it's got a good 30 years of my life for a hawser, with the lives of many more folk braided into the rope.

  • 1974-81: Growing up on the Charles River in Natick and Newton, I was a certified lifeguard and paddling instructor by age 16. I taught canoeing on Cape Breton Island and later on the Connecticut River (Dartmouth '81). A strong voice is as useful for teaching water sports as it is for leading songs, and I soon learned to use mine to do both at once. Also in high school, I started folk dancing with the MIT Folk Dance Club, learning dances, songs, and faces that would come back to haunt me thirty years later!

  • 1981-1985: Returning to Boston after college, I danced "eight nights a week" in the rich Boston folk community, and got my chops as a song leader singing pub songs after morris dancing. Revels, Inc. did its first Sea Revels in 1982, and I was a soloist on the Sea Revels album Blow Ye Winds in the Morning.

  • 1986-88: I worked summers in Newfoundland as environmental educator with QLF/Atlantic Center for the Environment and did my M.S. research at Gros Morne National Park. My first album of Newfoundland music, Crosscurrents, was submitted with my graduate thesis. It and I won some awards, and I left a Ph.D. program to become a fulltime musician and outdoor educator. It's a long story, and one to be told further in this blog.

  • 1988-98: The traveling years of Crosscurrents: Bluewater and Whitewater Music. I toured sea music programs from NYC to Newfoundland, including Seabourn Cruise Lines, the Sloop Clearwater, Portsmouth Maritime Folk Festival, and Mystic Sea Music Festival, where I was a regular for seven years. My profession was heritage interpretation and environmental education, which means parks, museums, nature centers, and schools. Oh, and I wrote a big book about Canadian rivers called VOYAGES.

  • October 1998: I moved back to Boston and took a day job as boating editor for Maptech Embassy Guides to Massachusetts, Maine and Bahamas. Being a photojournalist got me sailing on tall ships Roseway, Ernestina, Margaret Todd, Cory, and Empire Sandy.

  • Summer 1999: Boston had a hot new Seaport District with the acoustically amazing Fan Pier. When tall ships HMS Rose and Empire Sandy came to town, I called out my chantey buddies for what became our first "Chanteyblast." At Mystic and at the New York and San Francisco chantey sings, I'd developed an addictive taste for the intense camaraderie and glorious harmonies that sea music creates. But both those sings are held at the local maritime museum, Hyde Street Pier or South Street Seaport Museum, as community extensions of their regular public programs. Why on earth, I wondered, does Boston, of all cities, not have a major maritime museum? One answer, I was to learn, was that we have many maritime museums rather than one big one. Which one could host our sing?

  • September 2000: Boston Folk Festival booked me with Barry Finn for harbor cruises, which we discovered were much more fun as a chantey singalong than as a floating coffeehouse stage. Surely it was time to make this more than a semiannual sing.

  • 2000-2005: At the New England Folk Festival (NEFFA), I continued to lead my annual Open Sea Music Sing that had been drawing 75-150 people since 1991. With Barry, Celeste Bernardo, and other local chanteyfolk, we explored metroBoston venues for a regular monthly chantey sing, including the North End, Jamaica Plain, Constitution & Tea Party Ship museums, the downtown waterfront, Hull, and Southie. Nothing clicked. Sites with ships already had programming, especially on weekends. Ships without sites couldn't afford to offer free space. Sites with program space were too far from the water. Anyplace with a liquor license was going to turn away college kids and families. Known chantey singers, and the folk audience, are spread out in the suburbs too far from downtown. Boston, in short, is NOT New York or San Francisco.

  • Summer 2003: David Kessler joined me on a chantey sail aboard the replica USS Providence in Rhode Island. He had crewed aboard tall ship HMS Rose and is a professional logistics manager and theatre tech at Harvard and MIT. Notably, DK is a dauntless field collector who will demand a song from a total stranger in a bar--and get it! David wanted a chantey sing he could get to without a car, and certainly without driving to New York. He signed on as crew for the BFF Chanteyboat.

  • September 2001-2004: BFF Chanteyboat harbor cruises were "packed throughout the day" each year with up to 14 performers, but 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina hit the festival hard. Dockside and stormbound in 2004, we suspected it would be our last year.

  • September 2005: Boston Folk Festival regretfully ended the BFF Chanteyboat. David Kessler, Alison Lee Freeman, Jeff Keller and I committed ourselves to finding a new chantey sing venue within reach of Cambridge/Somerville, on the water, accessible by public transit, free to the public, and family-friendly.

  • Winter 2006: David Kessler, now working at MIT Sloan School of Management, made two key contacts within MIT: the Wood Sailing Pavilion and the Hart Nautical Gallery of the MIT Museum. It seems MIT has a hidden but world-class maritime heritage, from ship design to deep-ocean engineering. Also strongly oriented to the Cambridge community and with an active arts scene from folk dance to early music, MIT proved a great fit.

  • July 2006: We kicked off the first "Chantey Sing on the Charles" at the Wood Sailing Pavilion, with special guest Danny Spooner from Australia. The new NE_ChanteySings Yahoo! Group drew 23 members in its first month.

  • February 2006: The MIT Chantey Sing hits 70 people with a mention in the Boston Globe. The Yahoo! group has 67 members, and the reporter says her article will come out next Sunday. Look forward to future Chantey Sing installments of this blog!


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