The sea chantey, once the soundtrack of the Golden Age of Sail, has gone the way of other traditional work songs — relegated to folk festivals, history museums and a few tourist schooners. But in Midcoast Maine, chanteys that have sat in the archives for nearly one hundred years are getting a new life and being put back to work on Penobscot Bay.
At a private home in Northport, Bennett Konesni is teaching a sea chantey to a group of about ten singers.
“The chorus goes like this — ‘Wayyyheeyyaayyyy YA!’ Try it,” Konesni says.
Konesni is a musician and farmer from Belfast, and he is the founder of the Worksong Community Chorus. Its mission, he says, is to bring work songs of all kinds out of the archives and back into use on the farm, on the water or by the woodpile. In recent years, Konesni has focused on reviving maritime work songs — better known as sea chanteys, or simply as chanteys.
“Well at the root of sea chanteys is the call and response format,” Konesni says. “Might be a direct call and response where they just sing exactly what the chanteyman sang, or it could be something slightly different.”
Konesni was introduced to chanteys as a teenager while working on schooners. This is where he learned that specific chanteys match the rhythm of different tasks. For example, he says that he discovered that raising the anchor with a hand-cranked machine called a windlass creates a slow and steady beat that gave a structure to the song.