Menhaden Chanteys, an African American maritime legacy
May 11, 2018 11:47 AM   Subscribe

The liner notes of the audiotape of Northern Neck Chantey Singers, produced by the Virginia Folklife Program, provides an excellent history of chantey singing by black menhaden fishermen. They tell of a tradition that was little known, probably because chanteys 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. Such chanteys were uncommon in American commercial fisheries, and menhaden chanteys are for the most part unrelated to traditional, and better known, “sea chanteys” that flourished among the crews of 19th century American and British transatlantic sailing ships.
See You When The Sun Goes Down by the Northern Neck Chantey Singers.

The Fish the Built Beaufort
As the bows of the two boats came closer together, the net closed, or pursed, at the bottom to keep the menhaden from escaping. Then came the really hard part: raising the net, bulging with tens of thousands of fish, literally tons of fish, so they could be densely packed for bailing onto the mother boat. This was backbreaking, muscle-aching, hand-callusing labor that demanded these men work together — pull together — in unison. To keep everyone synchronized, the men sang songs that were known as chanteys. The workers, away from home for days, weeks, or months at a time, came up with the words themselves. They were bluesy songs, carrying whiffs of homesickness and longing. Here’s one chantey printed in Barbara Garrity-Blake’s 1994 dissertation, The Fish Factory:

I left my baby 
Standing in the back door crying.
She said, “Daddy, don’t go,
Lord, Lord, Daddy, don’t go.”

Some chanteys had a stick-it-to-the-man tone, expressing the solidarity the crew members shared with one another. A case in point:

Captain, if you fire me, fire me, fire me
Captain, if you fire me,
You got to fire my buddies, too.
From the Maryland Marine Notes archive Menhaden Chanteys, An African American Maritime Legacy [pdf]
Work on the menhaden boats afforded financial independence to young black men. At the same time, they suffered from harsh and sometimes abusive working conditions and from separation from loved ones. In keeping with the tradition of field hollers, worksongs and the blues, chanteys gave the crew freedom of expression — the songs expressed all manner of thoughts and ideas from loss to lust to criticism of captains. In general they depicted the circumstances and concerns of the singers. The lyrics of various songs formed a vocabulary — lyrics and verses from different songs, including blues and even gospel at times, were interchangeable and formed a pool for improvisation of new songs that enabled the singers to express their day-to-day thoughts and concerns.

Crews sang of work and homesickness, relationships and the women left behind. They repeated the lyrics from familiar blues songs and, just as in blues, no subject was out of bounds. Beyond earshot of anything but fish and birds, the young men sang songs of whatever came to mind without regard for any sense of what might be fitting or seemly on land. “They were just as wild and rough as anything you’ve seen in your life,” says [Northern Neck Chantey Singers' organizer, Rev. William] Hudnall. “That was the first problem we had when we formed the group — we cleaned [the songs up] cause all this language is different. What was said wasn’t even fit to say out there on the water.”

Sometimes when they perform, says Hudnall, people familiar with the old ways ask to hear ‘Abilena,’ a song about a woman of ill repute — “She was a lady of the night, and the attributes that she had, when you talk about that on the water, that wasn’t even fit for the birds to hear!” Still, some of the bawdier songs were very effective when it came to hauling nets, according to Hudnall: “They always say you’d raise more fish with ‘Abilena’ than any other chantey.”
More audio from the Northern Neck Chantey Singers:
Rehearsal Tape
Reedville: Tape 1
Reedville: Tape 2
Talk From Chantey Singers Recording Session

17 minute video from the Library of Congress

Bonus, oral histories from the NC menhaden fisheries, and The Most Important Fish in the Sea.
posted by peeedro (8 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
This is really cool. Pretty much all of my ancestors are from the Northern Neck of Virginia, and my father, as a young man, worked on a menhaden fishing boat before going into retail. He worked out of Reedville and fished all up and down the east coast. Even today, every time we speak, he tells me how the boats are doing.

Also, all of my grandparents, aunts, and uncles had this book.
posted by 4ster at 12:59 PM on May 11 [3 favorites]

This is good stuff. I've been fortunate to see the Northern Neck singers perform and demonstrate their net handling. Beautiful stuff.

for the most part unrelated to traditional, and better known, “sea chanteys” that flourished among the crews of 19th century American and British transatlantic sailing ships.

The interesting part of this is that emerging scholarship on transatlantic chanteys is beginning to reveal that most of their roots, too, are almost certainly African-American.
posted by Miko at 5:04 PM on May 11 [1 favorite]

Awesome, thank you
posted by mwhybark at 6:23 PM on May 11

Bith sides of my birth family are from the Northern Neck, and my birth father's side were watermen. This is so, so, valuable to me.
posted by mwhybark at 6:24 PM on May 11 [2 favorites]

i doubt very highly that i have ever eaten a menhaden. new objective.
posted by mwhybark at 7:41 PM on May 11

if you eat supplements, organic food, or bread with Omega 3s, you are eating menhaden. But probably not from Baltimore, from Louisiana--the East Coast pogy fishery crashed a while back
posted by eustatic at 7:49 PM on May 11 [3 favorites]

Bay Joe Wise

Moss Point
posted by eustatic at 8:07 PM on May 11

+1 for eustatic: I grew up in Virginia Beach and the Outer Banks. The menhaden schools and the boats were a common sight in childhood but now they are almost all gone. Fished out, pollution, Kepone, ...

The oyster and the crab fisheries are hanging on by a thread, but I would not eat either of those from the Chesapeake Bay,
posted by sudogeek at 4:04 PM on May 12

« Older But how will we rank our worth as human beings?   |   THE ONE WHERE EVERYBODY LOVES FRIENDS Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments