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Awash in a Sea of Chanteys

Those who left their hearts in an old schooner can summon visions of life at sea at sing-alongs along Fisherman's Wharf.

March 17, 2003|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — 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Some might not see the charms of descending into the dank hollows of a decrepit ship to sing outdated songs.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."

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