To Chris Glanister, the physical representations of maritime history—the buildings, docks and ships—are only part of the story.
A more complete picture, he believes, can be learned through maritime music, the songs sailors used to stave off boredom and homesickness, chronicle their experiences at sea and help them endure days of grinding labor.
“The songs carry the history. People are more likely to listen to a song about something than they are to read about it,” said Glanister, who lives in Edmonds.
Glanister is among a small but vibrant group of musicians around Puget Sound dedicated to keeping alive the maritime music that reflects the area’s rich seafaring history. To that end, he’s producing the fourth annual Port Gamble Maritime Music Festival this Saturday, Aug. 15.
The free event will include five musical acts playing songs ranging from haunting ballads to rousing shanties, along with vendors offering maritime gifts and other items. The festival will be held next to the Port Gamble General Store, with seating on a sloping lawn overlooking Puget Sound.
Glanister will be playing with The Whateverly Brothers, a trio that uses three-part harmonies and lively instrumentation. Other acts include the piratical figure of Tugboat Bromberg, former merchant mariner Wendy Joseph, the all-women group Broadside, and duo Spanaway Bay. Songs will include a mix of original and traditional.
The idea for the festival arose after Glanister played a gig in Port Angeles a few years back. An audience member approached him afterward and suggested he do a show in Port Gamble, a historic 19th century mill town on the shores of Hood Canal. Glanister liked the idea. Calling in favors from various music festival friends, he organized a show in Port Gamble in the summer of 2006 on a shoestring budget.
About 150 people showed up, despite the town losing power just before the show was going to start. With a generator provided by the city, the inaugural Port Gamble Maritime Music Festival went ahead.
“We fell in love with the place immediately,” said Glanister, 50, vice president of Puget’s Sound Productions, the nonprofit organization that produces the festival.
For Glanister, a fascination with maritime music comes naturally. As a boy growing up in England, he was immersed in maritime tradition: his father was a professional dinghy racer and the family spent weekends sailing in England’s picturesque Lake District. His appreciation of maritime music was stoked by reading Arthur Ransome’s classic Swallows and Amazons series, through which he learned the lyrics to traditional sea shanties.
Some 5,000 miles away and several years earlier, Dan Roberts was growing up in Sausalito, the son of a Second World War merchant seaman. Captivated by his father’s war stories, he watched ships coming and going from San Francisco Bay.
“The whole romance of the sea got established pretty early for me,” said Roberts, 60, a Seattle resident who co-formed the Whateverly Brothers.
Roberts and Glanister met decades later and became part of a group of musicians who played sea shanties and sailor music at festivals and other events around the Northwest. They played countless shows aboard the Wawona, the three-masted, 165-foot schooner that sailed from 1897 to 1947 as a lumber carrier and fishing vessel around Puget Sound. Efforts to restore the Wawoma were ultimately unsuccessful, and the aging ship was dismantled in March 2009, to the heartbreak of Glanister and others.
“If anything fired the imagination, it was that ship,” Glanister said. “The Wawona has meant a lot to us.”
The songs that once rang out on the Wawona include forebitters or forecastle (fo’c’sle) ditties, ballads sung for entertainment during leisure time, and sea shanties, traditional work songs sung by sailors to ease their hard physical labor. The songs used rhythmic verse to carry out the various tasks on a ship, such as raising the sails or lowering the anchor.
Drawing from the Celtic music of the British Isles and the musical traditions of African American slaves working on American ships, shanties commonly use a call-and-response format, with the leader—the shantyman—signing a verse and the other workers singing back their response. The format is rooted in African cultures, where it’s commonly used in public discussions of civic affairs, religious rituals and music.
The songs were also a means of releasing pent-up aggression against the ships’ masters and the harsh punishment they frequently meted out; as long as sailors were singing, they could get away with saying virtually anything.
Roberts refers to sea shanties as “the heavy metal of folk music” for their uncomplicated structure and easy-to-learn lyrics. But he also says bringing people together to sing simple sea shanties can be a powerful way to foster community in an increasingly alienating world.
“We’re so atomized into our little lives, our little houses, our little cars, our little groups,” he said. “These things can help build community, which is one of the things we need most these days.”
To encourage new seafaring songs and highlight the region’s importance as a maritime economy, Glanister added a songwriting contest to this year’s music fest in Port Gamble, with the theme “Maritime Work in the 21st Century.” The 15 or so entries have been reviewed by a panel of judges and winners will be announced during the festival.
“We wanted to bring new songs into the lexicon,” Glanister said. “There’s still a thriving maritime industry in this town, but it’s different. It’s not sailing ships anymore, but that doesn’t mean that the music can’t accompany it.”
There are other festivals around the region dubbed maritime music events, but Glanister said they typically feature other types of music, such as ‘50s rock ‘n roll. The Port Gamble festival, which drew about 300 people last year, may be the only West Coast festival focused exclusively on maritime music, he said.
“This is a pure music festival,” he said. “It’s all about maritime music.”
The Port Gamble Maritime Music Festival will be held from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 15 next to the Port Gamble General Store. Bring your own chair or blanket for seating. For additional information, visit the festival website.