A mingling of music and history: Sea chanteys explored

By Kitty LeShay - ReminderNews
Ashford - posted Wed., May. 1, 2013
Craig Edwards, accompanied by his banjo, sings some timeless sea chanteys. Photo by Kitty LeShay.
Craig Edwards, accompanied by his banjo, sings some timeless sea chanteys. Photo by Kitty LeShay.

Craig Edwards, a staff musician at Mystic Seaport, brought together his talent in music and his knowledge of history in a presentation about life at sea and the chanteys sailors sang throughout the ages. The April 19 program was held in the intimate setting of Knowlton Hall with an audience that acted as the chorus on a few numbers. Edwards either sang without accompaniment or with banjo, fiddle and chorus.

“I became interested in music when I was around 11, while growing up in western Virginia. From Hank Williams, I moved backwards,” he said. After getting a degree in ethno-musicology at Wesleyan University, he has made his career in telling the stories of sailors.

“There were specific songs for jobs that were done on the ships,” he explained. An example of this was the song “Round the Corn Sally” which was the first African American song written down and sung as the boats were loaded with cotton. “Paddy Doyle’s Boots” is an example of a song about furling the sails as the crew navigated the treacherous waters of Cape Horn. Many ships did not make the passage between the Atlantic and Pacific.

Edwards stepped back in history to the Napoleonic Wars and told and sang the colorful story of Horatio Nelson, the one-eyed, one-armed admiral in the British Navy. He lost his life at the battle of Trafalgar at the height of his popularity and career. Trafalgar Square in London is dedicated to him and is a popular spot for tourists and pigeons.

“Fishing was and is one of the most dangerous jobs on the water,” Edwards said. “Sailors on whaling ships were very young, with the average age being 19. When they got onto shore they often got into trouble with women and alcohol,” he said. Life on a whaling ship was difficult, the food bad and waters dangerous. The song “Salt House Chantey” lamented the meat which was so heavily salted, it was rinsed in sea water. The song “Ghostly Sailors” is about a ship ramming into another with all the sailors drowning on the rammed ship.

In more recent times, the Andrea Gail, sailing out of Gloucester, became a casualty due to three raging weather fronts which produced a storm of hurricane magnitude. The boat and crew were lost on Oct. 30, 1991. Many will remember it from the book or movie called “The Perfect Storm.”

Following the presentation many in the audience came up to Edwards to thank him for an interesting, fun program. “I like sharing a kind of music which is social music. People share with each other in informal settings instead of a formal performance,” he said.

Program director Pam McCormick heard an Edwards performance couple of years ago. “It was a good program and I wanted to bring it here,” she said.


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