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Yo Ho Ho And A Cup O' Cocoa

March 14, 2007

Salty dogs and beached hipsters revel in sea chanteys together

The deck of the Balclutha looks very different by moonlight. During the day, visitors scuttle like rats aboard the 19th-century cargo ship, one of six historical vessels docked at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park's ship museum at Hyde Street Pier. They peer through portholes, gaze up at the vessel's dizzying 145-foot mainmast, and lean over the bowsprit, cameras swinging. But on the first Saturday of each month, the Balclutha becomes a magical midnight meeting place for old salts and their sea songs.

Some 200 people gathered aboard the ship for the last San Francisco Chantey Sing in early March. Graying folk musicians with accordions, guitars, and frayed ponytails, park rangers in forest-green uniforms, gurgling infants and their parents, hipsters, and tourists crammed below deck to play and sing barnacle-encrusted melodies. "The cook is in the galley, boys, making duff so handy," crooned the self-appointed leader of one song in a lusty, vibrating baritone. "Way, haul away, we'll haul away, Joe!" responded the crowd with practiced gusto. "The captain's in his cabin, lads, drinking wine and brandy." Then came the familiar callback: "Way, haul away, we'll haul away, Joe!"

Run by park ranger, musician, and sea chantey expert Peter Kasin, the San Francisco Chantey Sing is the largest and oldest event of its kind in the country. It became part of San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park's regular program of events in 1981 and often attracts upward of 150 attendees. The "open session" is free and bracingly communal: Anyone can lead a song and most of the crowd enjoys bursting in with the catchy, repetitive choruses. The organizers serve free hot cider and cocoa during the breaks. People can explore the Balclutha's nooks and crannies and even pet Stretch, the ship's fat ginger cat, often to be found napping in the sailors' quarters.

As an international maritime port — and an infamous one at that — San Francisco has long been a center for sea chanteys. Composed in "call-and-response" form and covering such themes as ruthless captains, life aboard ship, and grog, chanteys (or shanties) eased the burden of hard physical labor by accompanying various tasks from the raising of the sails to the lowering of the anchor. During the Golden Era of chanteying (1840-60), sailors made up songs about San Francisco's dangerous Barbary Coast and notorious crimps Shanghai Brown and Larry Marr, who press-ganged many an unsuspecting victim into a life of watery toil. Meanwhile, the Gold Rush inspired new chanteys about the riches to be had in California.

Over the past few decades, the genre has undergone a quiet but persistent revival in the Bay Area. British chantey aficionados are largely credited with kick-starting the resurgence. The most revered of these is Stan Hugill (1906-1992), a sailor, musician, and music historian whose book Shanties From the Seven Seas is considered to be the Bible of the genre. Dick Holdstock, a 72-year-old chantey musician who currently resides in Davis, is considered to be one of the local living greats. Today, several pubs host regular chantey nights. These include the Edinburgh Castle on Geary Street, where the three-piece chantey band Salty Walt and the Rattlin' Ratlines plays a regular gig on the last Sunday of each month, Quinn's Lighthouse in Oakland, and Berkeley's the Starry Plough.

Kasin calls chanteys "the rap songs of the 19th century." Despite the high turnout of able seamen and women, the rousing choruses, and flowing cider at Hyde Street Pier earlier this month, it's difficult today to imagine tunes like "Whiskey Johnny" and "The Five Gallon Jar" having the same chart-topping impact as Snoop Dogg's "That's That." Few radio stations air chanteys, and chantey groups and venues seem unconcerned with advertising their events. Still, a tiny coterie of more youthful chantey artists, such as the members of Salty Walt, is keeping the tradition going. "Most people think that chanteying is strictly for the nearly dead folk movement," said Walter Askew, Salty Walt's lead singer. "But I'm hoping the energy of pub sings and crossovers to newer genres like pirate punk will help it find its way to the next generation.



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