Chuck’s Big Adventure: Songs of the sea

The sea chantey and songs of the sea have made an impressive comeback, thanks to public radio and social media.

BATH, Maine — Chuck’s Big Adventure is traveling to New England. It is an area known for its beauty, history, lobsters and, in autumn, it’s explosion of color.

Songs of the sea

Sometimes, a sound can take you to a place you’ve never been for the first time but makes you believe it’s always been a part of you.

Wander by the coastline of Bath, Maine, near a renovated mockup of the state’s first ship, and you hear it – and see it. A rigging crew hoisting a sail, sing an old sea chantey:

“Whiskey gave me a broken nose…

Whiskey made me pawn my clothes…

Whiskey for the Johnny O.”

That crew and those songs are all part of the everyday life of Fred Gosbee and Julia Lane, better known as Castlebay.

For decades, they have documented – with books, concerts and tours – the songs of the sea and the chanties that hard-working sailors used to make their life and work more bearable.

Our Big Adventure team met with Fred and Julia near the world-famous Bath shipyard and toured the replica 1607 ship. While there, Fred and Julia sang for us, and their rigging crew demonstrated the songs – songs that brought perfectly to mind the life, the feeling and the deep emotion of life working on the sea.

Sea chanteys are work songs. And one of the big differences between the sea chanteys and the other songs, which you call ‘forebitters,’ is there’s no plot, there’s no story – they’re just random verses to keep the cadence,” Fred said. “When the sail is up or the anchor’s up, when their job is done, the song is over – even if you’re in the middle of a verse.”

“So, the chanteyman will shout high enough, and the song comes to an end, so you can’t have a trajectory, you can’t have a plot,” Julia said. “It’s often very improvisational, you know, the food is bad, the captain is terrible. My feet hurt, you know?”

The songs reflect a hard way of life, but in their concerts and recordings, Castlebay also sings songs of the sea, romanticized, tragic, heroic stories with a beginning, middle and end. These songs have been catalogued and researched, and tell a tale of an incredibly creative period in the history of Maine.

Julia loves this historic time and the music the fishing life created. It’s something she wants to pass down. 

“I have to say, we have a granddaughter. She’s 6. She picks this stuff up just like that. We hear her in the car seat, singing the songs, and we’re all singing together. I just love how it brings generations together,” Julia said. “When our son was in junior-high school, his buddies all love to sing this stuff, and they’d go down the hall of the junior-high singing, singing these songs. We ended up playing one of them at one of their weddings.”

Julia said the sea chanteys become part of your life and relationships.

“I think you’ll find that there are lots of closet singers. There are, you know, thousands of versions of them, and I think it’s important for people to just sing them and feel them and pass them on,” Julia said.

Schooner Adventure

Peter and Audi Souza feel the same way. We met them down the coast on the Schooner Adventure, a national historic landmark in Gloucester, Massachusetts. We met the Souzas and their friends on board, who love this still seaworthy fishing schooner and the music that celebrates the fishing and sea life.

Peter’s family immigrated here from Portugal and were fish cutters. To him, the songs bring him back to the life his ancestors lived every day. 

“I like chanteys. I like the work-in-motion thing, and we’ve done a lot with schools and stuff. You know, you can explain how movement will make a sail go up or down,” Peter said. “I like the stories they tell, and a lot of them are fabricated, of course. It tells a history of about 100 years in this country. And that’s all it was about 1820, up to 1920. I must have a collection of 70 or 80 books at home from the late 1800s, up to 1950-something, all original stuff that I’ve collected through the years. I had one of my good friends, Andrew Durant, passed away several years ago, and through a friend, he left me his whole collection.”

The songs ended when the diesel engines eliminated schooners. The sea chantey and songs of the sea have made an impressive comeback, however. Public radio features sea song shows, and social media has brought a newfound interest in the genre from young people who are fascinated by the songs and their history.

Nathan Evans, 26, from Scotland, has more than 1 million followers on TikTok with his sea chantey revival and has even quit his job to pursue a music career. 

For folks like Fred and Julia and Peter and Audi, the songs reinforce what New England was and the everyday lives celebrated by these haunting melodies.

This was a big adventure indeed — sounds that brought me back to a place where I had never been but wish I had.

More of Chuck’s Big Adventure: 

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