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Atlantic Ocean Serves as Backdrop for Sea Chantey Singer - 2002-08-03

Sea chanteys are sailor songs set to the rhythms of work and the open seas. Essentially folk poetry set to music, chanteys address almost every concern a sailor might have, work, women, war, the captain, and the "merry" life ashore. The New England region of the northeastern United States has a particularly rich heritage of sea chanting, dating from the days of wind-powered sailing. VOA's Adam Phillips interviewed a sea chantey expert and singer in the seaport of Portland, Maine.

This is the Atlantic Ocean, the preferred backdrop for Charles Ipcar's great love: sea chanteys. For 12 years, Mr. Ipcar and his friends, all of whom hail from Maine, have been entertaining themselves and others with songs of the sea, both old and new.

I caught up with him in an old marine junk shop near the Portland pier.

Ipcar:"A lot of what we do is the traditional work song that the sailors used for managing the sails and for loading cargo and for managing the anchor -- those kinds of things. Not to mention some of the songs they sang ashore when they were drinking!"
Phillips:"Why would they need songs when they were loading or managing the sails? Why not just go about heir business, grunting?"
Ipcar: "Some of them did that. But when you sang a song like a chantey, it helped get everybody coordinated together, in terms of pulling all at one time or pushing all at one time. 'Heaving or hauling,' as they say."
Phillips:"Would you mind giving me a couple of those songs?"
Ipcar: "Sure. This is a song from Mobile Bay [on the U.S. coast of the Gulf of Mexico], and it's for loading up huge bales of cotton and compacting the bales and stuffing them into the hold. They had giant screw presses for doing this."

"Oh shift that bale and screw it down
Fire a Mingo, Fire Away!
Let's get back to Portland Town
Fire a Mingo, Fire Him Away!
"Oh! when I gets to Portland Town
Fire a Mingo, Fire Him Away!
Gonna pass a line to little Sally Brown
Fire a Mingo, Fire Him Away!"

Phillips:"Now, is there a range of moods to these songs?"
Ipcar: "Oh yeah! A lot of the work songs are one of the few ways that sailors could talk back to the mates and the captains."
Phillips:"So there is a political aspect to it."
Ipcar: "Yes. This is a poem by C. Fox Smith. She was a person who collected sea music back in the 1920s and sailed on some of the square-riggers [large sailing ships] as a woman. And it's called 'Lime House Reach,' from London."

"I fell in love with a Lime House lass
But she has proved untrue
She looked as fresh as a figurehead that's just been painted new
Now she's took and married a Kew Boat lad, and it's time for me to go
But I would have loved you so my dear, I would have loved you so.
"A shake of the foresheet pays for all that a sailor leaves behind
For an alehouse shot a sailor forgot, a sweetheart's faults are all kind
The blooming mud hook's [anchor] off the ground, and it's time for us to go
But I would have loved you so my dear
I would have loved you so!"

Ipcar: "Okay? ... "Some of them are really rollicking drinking songs. Here's a new contemporary one called 'Tanqueray Martini-oh!' It's a hauling chantey."

"As we set sail from Portland Town
with a fleet of Chris Craft [powerboats] all around
From on deck the call came down 'Tanqueray Martini-Oh!'
"It's haul the sheet back with one hand
Set your drink down if you can
And we never set sail out of sight of land/ Tanqueray Martini-Oh!
"It's nine parts gin to one vermouth
It's a yachtsman's friend, and that's the truth
From Casco Bay [Maine] to the Bay of Booth
it's Tanqueray Martini-Oh!
"'All hands on deck!' comes the cry
as gale force winds shred the sky
But we stay dry because we're so high
Tanqueray Martini-Oh
"The captain's laid out on the floor
being elected to get some more
But he broke his leg trying to get onshore
Tanqueray Martini-Oh!"

That's Charles Ipcar, singing a modern sea chantey by the sea in Portland, the largest coastal city in the New England state of Maine.

"It's haul the sheet back with one hand
Set your drink down if you can
And we never sail out of sight of land
Tanqueray Martini-Oh!"