“Way, haul away, we’ll haul away Joe”
TRAVERSE CITY – One way to help keep maritime history alive is knowing -- and singing – the sea shanties sailors sang as they hauled in anchors, lifted and dropped sails, folklorist Tom Kastle says.
Kastle, a musician, singer and tall ship captain from Madison, Wis., led a two-hour workshop on sea shanties Saturday at the Maritime Heritage Alliance boat building shop in Greilickville.
Shanties, also spelled “chanteys,” are work songs once sung by sailors doing various kinds of heavy manual work on board mostly merchant square riggers, even brigs and topsail schooners. The right song at the right time helped helped them accomplish together what they otherwise could not have done on their own.
Many were “call-and-response” songs. The lead singer, or shantyman, made the call and workers sang the chorus. For example:
“The songs were basic work tools,” said Kastle, who has served as captain aboard several Great Lakes tall ships, including Friends Good Will in South Haven, Inland Seas in Suttons Bay, Windy and Windy II in Chicago. He is a relief captain for the Denis Sullivan in Milwaukee.
Shanties came into common use on American vessels before the Civil War in the 1800s. The songs have roots in British sailor working chants. African-American songs sung by workers loading cotton on vessels in southern U.S. port cities also influenced their development.
As many as 1,600 to 1,800 schooners sailed on the Great Lakes at their peak in the 1870s..
The mostly owner-operated schooners were the semi tractor-trailer truck of their days, while corporations owned the larger steamships, Kastle said.
Shanty songs ended their long hold over mariners near the end of the 19th century as steam-powered ships and shipboard machinery took the place of the sailing vessels near the end of the 19th century.
Many of the shanty songs disappeared forever because they never were written down, he added. Smithsonian folklorist Alan Lomax and University of Michigan collector Ivan Walton saved some of the Great Lakes songs during the 1930s by recording aging sailors singing the work songs of their youth. Beaver Island and Traverse were among the places they traveled with their early recording devices Michigan, including Beaver Island and a few in Traverse City.
Today’s bible of sea chanteys is Stan Hugill’s “Shanties for the Seven Seas,” which contains more than 300 songs, Kastle said. Hugill was British folk music performer, artist, shantyman and sea music historian who died in 1992.
Maritime Heritage Alliance interest in the work songs grew last summer when the group’s Schooner Madeline and 70 rotating crew members and six captains sailed to tall ship events around the Great Lakes to participate in the re-enactment of the decisive 1813 Battle of Lake Erie. A Ohio re-enactor assigned to the Madeline sang them, said MHA member Shaun Anchak of Traverse City. Anchak came back to Traverse City
“During the enactment, we had a crew member aboard from Ohio who sang them,” said MHA member Shaun Anchak of Traverse City, who organized a MHA sing-along in November that attracted 60 people.
Based on the response, MHA members decided to invite Kastle to do a workshop and concert as part of an effort to raise funds to help continue the restoration of Witchcraft, a wooden sailboat made by the late Bill Livingstone of Northport for his wife.
“We hope to keep this going,” Anchak said of the shanty sings.
Kastle, who plays guitar, concertina and harmonica, is a storyteller, too, and active in the Chicago Maritime Festival held in February. He is also an Inland Seas Education Association volunteer in Suttons Bay.
“The MHA and all tall ships are part of the Great Lakes maritime heritage,” he said. “And to keep that tradition alive you have to keep the boat alive and the history associated with it.”