Steamboats, sea shanties mark waterfront festival

Published on Thu, Aug 2, 2007 by ack Kintner

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Steamboats, sea shanties mark waterfront festival

By Jack Kintner

Steamboats, one of which has a locally refurbished calliope played by Blaine impresario Don Stagg that can be heard for miles. The “prestigious George Raft Race” where Blaine’s Tommy Ryser will defend the trophy he won last year in a race around the marina in odd-looking craft that may or may not be afloat for the finish line.

An extensive arts and crafts fair with kids games and sidewalk sales, live music of the sea and a motorcycle show & shine. An evening sea shanty sing along followed by a concert in Peace Arch Park featuring the best in folks songs of the sea with singers from the Vancouver Folk Song Society and several well-known groups from as far as Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, B.C.

All this and more is on tap for Saturday, August 4, beginning at 9 a.m. down at Blaine Harbor and finishing as the evening concert draws to a close at dusk in Peace Arch Park. And this family and kid-friendly fun celebration of Blaine’s waterfront heritage and future is all completely free.

Professional folk singer and concert promoter Jon Pfaff of Seattle has put together what he hopes will become an annual event in setting up the One Oar Music of the Sea Festival. “It should happen each year, because as of now there is no annual sea music festival anywhere on the west coast of North America,” he said. The name comes from a found object art collage at the Blackberry House that includes one well-used and well-warped oar.

Pfaff, who heads up his own group called the Sometimes Sound Singers, has invited people from all over the northwest to sing in Blaine and has arranged a program that lasts from 11 a.m. until dusk. Included on the list of invited artists are two well-known groups, the Vancouver Folk Song Society and the Bellingham Norwegian Male Chorus along with such luminaries as working shipwright and shanty singer Stan James, a fixture at Seattle’s Northwest Seaport who has taught hundreds of sea songs to thousands of people.

Irish harp and melodeon player Chris Roe’s deep and mellow alto voice carves traditional songs out of simple settings and accompaniments. She is also a member of an all-female shanty-singing group called St. Elmo’s Choir. Vancouver’s Brian Robertson is an award winning guitar payer and singer from Vancouver and a member of the Vancouver Folk Song Society. In addition to singing and teaching old favorites and traditional songs, he has written lots of original tunes about west coast fishing.

Mary Benson from Portland, along with Roe a member of St. Elmo’s choir, is known for her great vocal range. “All she does is sing,” said Pfaff, “but believe me, that’s enough.” She was a founding member of the Celtic singing group Howling Gael in the ’60s as well as a later group called Runcible Spoon that specialized in 19th-century British music hall songs.

The three veteran performers, along with Pfaff, form the Sometimes Sound Singers, and appeared in Blaine once before for the dedication of the Vigil statue.

Local songwriter and guitar player Keith Carpenter and his partner, standup bass player Lynne Givler, are also appearing and will feature Carpenter’s “The Whaler’s Song” based on the story of the Essex, the ship whose exploits are the basis for Melville’s classic Moby Dick. The program includes two people whose music expresses the deep and varied history of west coast fishing, “fisher-poets” John Van Amerongen of Vashon Island and Pat Dixon from Olympia. The singing begins at 11 a.m. at the G Street plaza and continues at 4 p.m. with a sing along followed by an evening sunset One-Oar Music of the Sea concert at the park.

Sea songs are work songs, explained Pfaff, citing references going back to the 15th century of sailors being observed singing while they worked as a way of getting the men to pull simultaneously on a line to hoist a sail or bring in an anchor.

The word shantey comes from the French “Chantez,” pronounced “shawn tay,” which means “sing!” It was called out when the song leader got to the chorus in a song. Other authorities cite the English word “chant” as the origin of the word since the sea songs were essentially chants such as those used in Christian worship, and spell it chanty. The working songs are often call and response tunes, meaning audience participation is frequent.

Steamboats return
The Northwest Steam Society’s local members will toot their way around the marina and Drayton Harbor much of the day and feature such local favorites as Captain Wolfgang Schlager’s delicate, well-restored Rose, and Custer gentleman farmer Gordon Sullivan’s Quickstep. The steam calliope, built by Sullivan and others and played by Blaine impressario Don Stagg, will be loaded Friday evening on to Brian Handle’s commodious 24-foot “Whistler,” a boat with the steam capacity to run the instrument. Once fired up it’s loud enough to break windows in Lynden, “not a bad idea,” said Stagg.

Mike Bowman will return with his narrow and fast Feeble II, Jack Thompson will bring the small white Catalyst and John and Joellen Hope will be bringing their boat named Spark.

Though in the past the group has steamed up Dakota Creek, this year the tides won’t allow it. Low tides this month are also the reason that the square-rigger Lady Washington missed last week’s planned stop at Blaine this year.

“Schlager has proposed a sail-by over at White Rock,” said Sullivan, “and we can do that as long as we don’t touch land.”

All this is free, family-friendly fun but will also showcase area folk musicians and the ways their works ties in with Blaine’s history and that of the area in terms of our vital and continuing connection with the sea.

For more information, call the Blaine Visitor Center at 332-4544. The Peace Arch Park concert and most of the other venues are ADA accessible. Special needs accommodations are available by calling 332-8221 or 360/902-8526.