Old songs of the sea resurrected in Port Townsend tonight

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

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PORT TOWNSEND -- The sea shanty tradition, where songs were used as a way to amuse and motivate sailors, will be explored and explained in a special presentation at the Upstage Theatre and Restaurant tonight.

"I'm going to sing a little bit and tell some stories," said Stephen Lewis, who will perform beginning at 6 p.m. at the business at 923 Washington St.

"And there will be a lot of my friends there to help me."

Lewis, 69, who has lived in Port Townsend since 1986, got some bad news last year when he was diagnosed with stomach cancer and told that he had only months to live.

"Right now, I am at around the median I was given," Lewis said.

"But I'm feeling pretty good right now, although my energy level isn't very high."

Lewis has been a sea shanty fan since college and has built a repertoire and a knowledge of the songs that once served as the only source of amusement for men on ships in the 19th century.

Lewis can play about two dozen shanties from memory.

Expanding that repertoire, he has put together a book containing the lyrics of about 140 songs that tell the story of a man at sea and all the pitfalls he may face.

Shanties, according to Lewis, weren't just for amusement.

"On the old ships, every job was done by hand, and it was important to keep the crew's concentration on the work they were doing at the time," Lewis said.

Shanties are often long and involved, using a call-and-response where the leader sings a line and the rest of the crew sings another line back.

At the Upstage, there are no rough waters or howling winds, but the call-and-response process keeps the audience involved, Lewis said.

Lewis earned a degree in oceanography at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., moved to Seattle and worked in that field for six years.

During those years, he was paid very well "and had no place to spend the money," so he saved and made good investments, building up enough of a fund to allow him to move to Port Townsend and follow his interests, which include sea shanties.

Oceanography and sea shanties are different sides of the same deep-sea coin, he said.

"The connection is the ocean, but as far as I know, there aren't any shanties about stringing [detection tools] Nansen bottles or hanging current meters," he said.

Shanties were written about other topics, such as being "shanghaied" onto a ship or having an unscrupulous boarding house operator trick a sailor out of his pay.

Lewis said that such dramas were often played out in Port Townsend and claims there is still a trap door in the recently closed Water Street Brewery that was once used to kidnap sailors.

"They would push them down the trap door, and when they awoke, they would find themselves on a boat as a member of the crew," he said.

The hapless sailor would have no source of entertainment or consolation aside from sea shanties.

Some of those same songs could be performed tonight.

Lewis doesn't think the shanty tradition will disappear, as there are several "song circles" and events like the Wooden Boat Festival -- which will be Sept. 9-11 this year -- that keep the tradition alive.

The Internet has contributed to this, since it provides a way for people to share lyrics and music around the world.

The event is free, which was Lewis' decision.

"Mark [Cole] at the Upstage talked to me about a cover charge and paying me, but I said I didn't want to mess with my amateur status," he said.

"I'm knowledgeable, but I'm not that good of a musician."

________

Jefferson County Reporter Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or charlie.bermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: January 13. 2011 12:07AM
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