National Folk Festival: Northern Neck Chantey Singers
Work songs are some of my favorite folksongs. Why I could watch and listen while other folks work and sing all day long.
The Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) is a member of the herring family and are one of the most abundant fish species in estuarine and coastal Atlantic waters. The Chesapeake Bay is an important nursery for juvenile menhaden; they occupy almost the entire Bay and its tributaries from above Baltimore to the mouth of the Bay in Virginia.
The chanteys of the menhaden fishermen are little known, due to the fact that they were sung only at sea by men working in a specialized fishing industry with only two centers of production: Reedville, Virginia and Beaufort, North Carolina. Reedville remains home to the last remaining menhaden processing plant between North Carolina and Maine, and is still the major port for landings on the Atlantic. Nowadays the processed fish are used mostly in fertilizer, pet food and as bait for more commercially viable catches.
The menhaden season usually ran from May until October and the large boats would sail along the coast from New Jersey to Florida hunting enormous schools of fish. When nets were hauled by hand, the crews from Reedville and Beaufort were primarily Africa-American, while the captain and the mates were mostly white. Crew work on a menhaden boat during those times was grueling. Working from long rowboats, as many as 40 men hauled in a purse seine net filled with thousands of pounds of fish. To accomplish this backbreaking feat, they sang chanteys to coordinate their movements. Work songs allowed black workers to gain a measure of control over the work, to turn it into a form of expression and to control the pace of the work itself.
On the Northern Neck region of Virginia, a peninsula lying between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers, a group of men in their 70s and 80s has been keeping alive the unique work songs of the menhaden fishermen. As young men, the Northern Neck Chantey Singers worked aboard fishing boats where they pulled up by hand nets teeming with menhaden from the waters of the Chesapeake and Atlantic. Of course the watermen say that they had to clean up the songs a bit for public performance. They were, after all, hard working men crowded on a boat miles from shore doing backbreaking work in dangerous conditions. Their songs were often of the women they left on shore or looked forward to spending time with at the next port. Whatever the subject, the purpose of the songs was to provide a cadence for the work at hand.
The Northern Neck Chantey Singers first appearance at the National Folk Festival will be on the NewMarket Stage at 4:15pm Saturday.