Singers Preserve Chanties of Virginia Fishermen

Northern Neck Chantey Singers i

The Northern Neck Chantey Singers are James U. Carter (from left), Christopher Harvey, William H. Muse, Edward Taylor, Lloyd Hill, Clarence Tiggle and Dr. Elton Smith, Jr. Debbie Elliott, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Debbie Elliott, NPR
Northern Neck Chantey Singers

The Northern Neck Chantey Singers are James U. Carter (from left), Christopher Harvey, William H. Muse, Edward Taylor, Lloyd Hill, Clarence Tiggle and Dr. Elton Smith, Jr.

Debbie Elliott, NPR

Northern Neck Chantey Singers

James U. Carter, Christopher Harvey, William H. Muse, Edward Taylor, Lloyd Hill, Clarence Tiggle, and Dr. Elton Smith, Jr.

Along the eastern seaboard 50 years ago, African-American fishermen used to sing as they worked. That work song tradition went by the wayside when machines replaced manual labor. But it's being kept alive by a group of aging former fishermen in the northern neck region of Virginia.

The men, all in their 70s and 80s now, rehearse each week in Dr. Elton Smith's living room. Smith is the manager of the Northern Neck Chantey Singers.

Chanties are songs that the fishermen would sing while working on the boat, Smith explains. The chanties would give the workers a sense of togetherness in pulling in the nets and hauling in the fish.

In 1957, Christopher Harvey worked on a boat called the Pocahontas near Greenport, Long Island. He learned the chanties from some of the old fishermen he met on the boats.

"It helped us as a crew of men to work together as one and to take some of the weight off each other," Harvey says. "If you sing chantey and coordinate yourself to come in at the same time, we know everybody have their share of work."

The fishermen would be at sea for weeks at a time on a large fishing vessel in search of menhaden, an oily fish used in animal feeds, fertilizers and industrial lubricants. Their time away affected what they sang about.

"If you young, you sing about your girlfriend," Harvey says, adding, "You also sing about your loved one you missed from home. Stuff like that."

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