Sea Shanty Song Circle to celebrate first anniversary
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Charlie Bermant/Peninsula Daily News
The first Sea Shanty Song Circle last January: from left, Wylie Vracin, Carol Baker, Dennis Cartwright, Laura Martin and R.H. Filick.

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

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PORT TOWNSEND — In January 2012, a loose coalition of sea chantey enthusiasts decided to meet each month to sing songs of the sea.

A year later, the group has developed into a monthly gathering that goes a long way toward keeping the tradition alive.

“It has exceeded our expectations,” said Lee Erickson, one of the organizers of the gatherings.

“At first, we thought we might meet every other month, but the people who attended said they wanted to meet monthly.

“It's a family-friendly night where no one has to have a great voice,” Erickson said.

Preserving traditions

“The people are just giving a little bit of themselves in order to preserve the traditions,” he added.

The Sea Shanty Song Circle and Sing Along celebrates its anniversary from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. today at the Cotton Building, 607 Water St.

Port Townsend musician Mike James, who led the first song circle, will lead the anniversary celebration.

The gathering is held the first Thursday of every month, aside from September, when a chantey sing-along is held in conjunction with the annual Wooden Boat Festival.

The evenings begin with everyone sitting in a circle. In turn, participants can either lead a chantey or pass to the next person.

The chanteys, many with multiple verses in a call-and-response format, were published this year in a collected lyrics book and will be on hand during the event.

The impetus for the gatherings came after the 2011 death of Stephen Gottleib Lewis, a Port Townsend resident who had a huge collection of chanteys he was attempting to preserve for posterity. The book, which was published last summer, contains 141 pages of lyrics from Lewis' collection.

The enthusiastic response also prompted a location change. The first gathering was held in the coffee shop at the Northwest Maritime Center, 431 Water St. The crowd spilled out into the Chandlery, which caused a move upstairs to the maritime center's meeting rooms.

After a few months, the upstairs rooms were no longer available because they were being rented out with increasing frequency, so the song circles now alternate between the Port Townsend Community Center and the Cotton Building.

Core chantey group

Erickson said the monthly gatherings attract a core group augmented by tourists and chantey enthusiasts who have moored their boats locally.

A latecomer to the event is Mark Olson, a Port Hadlock resident who served on the crew of the Lady Washington tall ship for several years and sang sea chanteys out of necessity.

“When I learned these songs, I wasn't singing them as a form of entertainment; it was part of my job,” he said.

“I was getting people to sing these songs to keep them working in a ship, to get their mind off the fact that they were on the deck of a ship in the middle of a 40-knot winds on a cold night where they were scared to death.”

The Lady Washington, the official ship of Washington state, is a full-scale reproduction of the first American vessel to visit the west coast of North America in approximately 1788.

The Lady Washington and the Hawaiian Chieftain are operated by the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority, a nonprofit based in Aberdeen, which offers public sails on both historic reproductions.

Preserving history

Olson said the Port Townsend sea chantey group also is actively supporting the preservation of a part of history.

“People are writing these songs down, or they are taping them on their iPhone and then transcribing them,” Olson said.

“They are rescuing them from oblivion, and they are taking on lives of their own.”

Olson said sea chanteys contributed to the development of language by carrying phrases from one region to the next.

“There was a time when the only places you could go were the places where your feet took you,” he said.

“But the songs that were carried out to sea changed the language, like the idea that people have to take their turn to speak. This had its origin with taking their turn on the ship's watch.”

World music

Olson said chanteys were the first example of “world music” and provided the template for jazz and, subsequently, rock 'n' roll.

“We have received a wonderful amount of support from the community for this,” Erickson said of the monthly gatherings. “It has created a subculture of chanteys enthusiasts and given them an opportunity to connect with each other.”

For more information about the monthly song circle, visit


Jefferson County Reporter Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at

Last modified: January 02. 2013 6:01PM
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