Awash in a Sea of Chanteys

Times Staff Writer

Now if ye ever go to 'Frisco town

Chorus: Whiskey Johnny!

Mind ye steer clear o' Shanghai Brown

Chorus: Whiskey for me Johnny!

He'll dope yer whiskey night an' morn

An' then shanghai ye round Cape Horn

-- from the 1850s sea chantey "Whiskey Johnny"

*

For almost any longtime resident, the song that truly captures hometown sentiment here is Tony Bennett's anthem about a guy who left his heart in this idyllic place of moody fog and impossible hills.

But for a few, the real heart of the city by the bay beats in a much less expected place -- below the listing deck of a worn, old lumber schooner, the C.A. Thayer.

Martini drinking sophisticates need not enter here. Instead, perched atop worn wooden planks within the bowels of the three-masted vessel are grizzled wharf-front characters, bearded musicians, Midwestern tourists and San Franciscans with roots dating to Gold Rush days. On a recent Saturday night along Fisherman's Wharf, this huddled crew launches into another four-hour jam session. Sea chantey style.

The rhythmic 19th century call-and-response songs -- bygone work ditties and bawdy ballads, once part of a sailing ship's routine -- come flowing out of the Thayer once a month. Modern day singers belt out the tunes that mostly uneducated deckhands once sang -- longing for home, lamenting capricious sea captains and fearing the weather that tormented vessels rounding the fabled Cape Horn.

Some might not see the charms of descending into the dank hollows of a decrepit ship to sing outdated songs. But for the converted, the chantey (pronounced SHAN-tee) sings are a chance to escape into an epoch of saucy bordello madams, arctic-bound whalers and countless other seafaring fortune seekers.

"For a few hours, people can step inside the psyche of an 1850s mariner and sing songs that speak of what remain universal experiences and emotions," said Kathy Daskal, a ranger at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, which runs the program aboard the Thayer and another period ship at the Hyde Street Pier. "These songs have the power to transport people to another place and time."

In U.S. and many European ports, chantey singing survives and even flourishes. Experts say there's scarcely an American harbor town that doesn't in some small way celebrate the music's charm and social history -- from sing-alongs in Seattle and San Diego to annual sea music festivals in Connecticut and New Hampshire. Day-sailing schooners hire chantey men to sing traditional songs and entertain the public. Connecticut's Mystic Seaport Museum even features four resident chantey singers who give on-ship performances.

Social historians say chanteys celebrate the social traditions and work ethic and self-determination of sailors -- hardened frontier men, often with an unhealthy thirst for whiskey, who used music to help ease their way through a life of loneliness and backbreaking labor.

"And the songs are simple once you know the chorus," said Stuart Frank, director of the Kendall Institute at the New Bedford, Mass., Whaling Museum. "You get a few beers in you, they're fun to sing."

In few places is the appetite for chantey music more voracious than in San Francisco, a city rich with seafaring lore. There are several chantey CDs produced by local aficionados. And Disney recently bought the rights to a chantey written by a former local sea captain for the upcoming film "Pirates of the Caribbean." In May, chantey organizers will renew a sea music festival on the Hyde Street Pier that started a quarter of a century ago.

Launched in 1981, San Francisco's free chantey sing-along is the nation's oldest continuously running series of its kind. The mailing list of enthusiasts includes musician Mortecai benHerschel, a former sailor and kazoo salesman who still "loves the smell of salt air and the swells of the open ocean." There's Peter Kasin, a part-time musician and former mailroom clerk who became a national park ranger, in part, because of his love for chantey music.

And there's computer worker Robin McClish. "The sense of camaraderie in these songs is so charming," she said. "I haven't missed a sing-along in seven years, unless you count the time my brother died."

Added her husband, Art: "There are two places a man with a voice like mine can sing without shame. One of them is in church. The other is at the chantey sing."

From the 1840s to the 1860s, a quixotic era considered the heyday of American sea-chantey music, San Francisco was a crossroads for sailors, prospectors and adventurers who ventured along the Pacific Rim. The minor port town grew from 700 to tens of thousands within a few years.

"San Francisco has no reason for being other than as a port," said Stephen Canright, curator of history at the National Park Service's maritime museum. "The weather is lousy. There's no decent land connection. Shipping defined the local economy."

Starting in 1849, thousands arrived to try their luck mining for gold in the frigid streams of the High Sierra. Countless others crewed the bulky ships that sailed out of town loaded with Central Valley grain, bound for Asian trading ports.

The city was also a hub for whaling ships and 500 sailing schooners -- like the 219-foot C.A. Thayer -- that carried lumber to San Francisco from ports to the north.

So many masts crowded San Francisco harbor that repairs became difficult to obtain. By 1860, 700 ships were abandoned and sunk. Others were transformed into warehouses, jails and run-aground brothels.

Like "Whiskey Johnny," chanteys warned sailors to steer clear of notorious San Francisco saloon owners called "crimps," who kidnapped men to crew outgoing ships. They describe the joys and curses of women and whiskey and dreams of Gold Rush riches. One ditty warns of the arrival of two particularly unwashed characters: "Somebody's knocking at the Golden Gate," begin the lyrics. "It's Dirty Dick and his dirty mate."

Experts trace the chantey's origins to slave songs, adopted by Yankee sailors at Southern cotton-loading ports. A chantey man would sing verses to such songs as "Bully in the Alley," "Girls of Dublin Town," "Rambling Sailor" and "Row Bullies Row." The crew would respond with the chorus. The songs supplied a rough-hewn rhythm for such arduous tasks as hauling lines, weighing anchor and raising sails, with the chantey man's verses giving the crew a few seconds of rest between hoists.

For Dave Nettel, who started the San Francisco chantey program, the songs provide a comforting throwback to a sepia-toned era of sturdy canvas sails and well-swabbed decks.

The former park service education director, now a psychologist, was leading an impromptu demonstration of a chantey on Labor Day weekend in 1981 when an audience member asked if he would have to wait until next Labor Day to hear such music.

"I didn't see why we should," Nettel recalled. So they staged another event the next month. Since then, the sing-alongs have been held aboard the 1895-era Thayer and the Balclutha--a historic Cape Horn grain ship built in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1886.

Seafarers handed down the songs from one generation to the next, preserving hundreds of chanteys in memory until they were finally published in recent years in bound anthologies. Hundreds more have been lost.

"Most have survived for 150 years without the benefit of sheet music," Nettel said. "To me, they're timeless. How many of today's pop songs would survive even 10 years without being recorded?"

Not everyone, of course, has an ear for the songs.

"People think I'm nuts to have a hobby like this," said Ted Miles, the maritime museum's assistant curator. "My wife calls it a perfect waste of a Saturday night."

Oh, the mate likes whiskey an' the skipper likes rum,

The sailors like both but we can't git none.

If whiskey was a river and I could swim,

I'd say here goes an' I'd dive right in.

Below the Thayer's listing wooden deck, old salts ready guitars, a mandolin, harmonicas and an accordion. Couples on cushions huddle under blankets, shivering from the chill that seeps through the old bleached hull. Somebody lights a fire in the potbellied stove and serves hot cider.

Then the singing starts. Violin under his chin, chantey host Kasin leads the first song before others take their turn: The woman who works locally as a fantasy pirate. The British tourist who sings "Leaving of Liverpool." One teenager belts out a throaty verse of "Barnacle Bill" and another "What Do You Do With the Drunken Sailor?"

Singers introduce most songs with the story of their origin. If the leaders forget the words, their confederates pass around a bound collection of chanteys like a Bible. On this night, 200 people show up. Some have traveled from as far as Bakersfield and San Pedro.

When the music starts, everyone joins in -- some in tune, but most not.

With his thick beard and barrel chest, Kasin personifies the 19th century sailor. He sets the rules: No smoking. No falling into the water.... Songs with X-rated lyrics come after 11 p.m. ("Awww," emotes a young voice in the crowd.)

Amateur sea historian Skip Henderson said the lyrics reflect the wildly eccentric characters who rode the seas. "There were people fleeing the law," he said, "disenfranchised doctors, lawyers, intellectuals, political outcasts; even some royalty."

Around midnight, the last of the singers creep up the Thayer's swaying plank, returning to the 9-to-5 world of dry land.

Oh, whiskey straight an' whiskey strong,

Gimme some whiskey an' I'll sing ye a song.

If whiskey comes too near me nose,

I tip it up an' down the hatch she goes.

The sing-alongs are free, but reservations are requested. Call (415) 556-6435.

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