• David Kessler, who works at MIT Sloan School of Management, breaks into song down at the Sailing Pavilion on Friday, Oct. 21. Kessler, who helped launch a series of sea chantey sings, is holding a book of sea chanteys.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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Yo ho ho! Sea chanteys inspire singers


It is easy to sing a sea chantey: Just say: "to me way-hey-hey-YAH," said Lynn Noel, one of the founding members of a group of singers that brings its special brand of maritime history to the MIT Museum each month.

"There is an exuberance and enthusiasm in these songs, like the smell of salt on your face," Noel said.

The sea chantey developed to help coordinate the work on a ship, said David Kessler, program assistant in the MIT Sloan School of Management, who co-produced the program with Noel, an Arlington resident. At its heart, the sea chantey is working music, with songs for pumping water from a ship, heaving at a capstan to bring up an anchor and hauling on lines to trim the sails.

Hauling chanteys come in two basic types: one for long, slow jobs, called drag chanteys, and one for short, quick jobs called short drag chanteys.

"Traditionally, chanteys were mostly sung a cappella, although sometimes there would be a fiddle or banjo," Kessler said. Both the concertina and melodeon (button accordion) might also have been used as accompaniment.

Noel and Kessler, along with MIT alumni Jeff Keller (S.B. 1988) and Michael Bergman (Ph.D. 1992), brought the chantey sings to MIT and to Boston this summer. Both San Francisco and New York City have monthly sings. New York's is held in the historic South Street Seaport.

With its history of sailing and rowing, Boston was ripe for a monthly sing, Noel and Kessler said. "Boston really deserved to have its own sea music community," said Noel.

The group first met at the MIT Sailing Pavilion in July and August. Roughly 30 chantey singers from all over the state sat on the dock, near the water. "There is a degree of authenticity you get when you are right out on the water singing about the water," said Noel.

The sings moved to the museum for winter but will likely return to the waterfront when the weather improves.

The MIT singers are open to any song of the sea, said Kessler. "We'll sing any song that's about sailors, ships, fishermen, dockyard workers or waterside neighborhoods. We cover all these under the umbrella 'maritime songs,'" he said.

Kessler has been sailing since he was a teenager, but said the songs give him a new appreciation for it. "As I became more interested in boats and larger ships, I became interested in their culture -- chanteys are fun and easy, and help me appreciate boats and sailing as much as sailing itself," he said.

For others, singing the chanteys is an opportunity to bring history alive. "It gives us an opportunity to bring the past into the present," Noel said. Just last week, a group of 100 singers came together to celebrate the bicentennial of the Battle of Trafalgar, the famous 1805 sea battle in which Britain's fleet, commanded by Adm. Horatio Nelson, defeated the French under Napoleon. "It is a form of living history," said Noel.

Although the majority of chanteys at the Boston sing are in English, the songs show up in almost every language in the world. Last month, an MIT graduate student who attended a sing performed a Polish chantey.

In the time before motors, "sailing vessels were moved by hand and heart," said Noel. These songs keep that memory alive, celebrating the sea and all the hard work that went into exploring it.

"The songs are an experiential education," Noel said. "They have a real context ��� the songs allow you to travel the world without leaving your chair."

For more information, or to join in, visit launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/NE_ChanteySings/.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 2, 2005 (download PDF).


Topics: Alumni/ae, Arts, Cambridge, Boston and region, Staff

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