'Sea Chantey' night at the bar: A rowdy, joyous ritual for lxandlubbers
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'Sea Chantey' night at the bar: A rowdy, joyous ritual for lxandlubbers
Cliff Haslam, Paul Elliott and Michael Hotkowski perform maritime music at The Griswold Inn in Essex, Conn., on Sept. 4, 2023, a decades-long tradition. Regulars flock to a Connecticut inn each Monday to listen and sing. It’s been 50 years — and counting. (Bea Oyster/The New York Times)

by Amelia Nierenberg

ESSEX, CONN .- From the darkness of a tavern in Essex, the first lines of the maritime folk song “Old Maui” cut through the bar chatter: “It’s a damn tough life full of toil and strife we whalermen undergo/ And we don’t give a damn when the day is done how hard the winds did blow.”

When it came time for the chorus, almost everyone joined in.

“Rolling down to Old Maui, rolling down to Old Maui,” they sang. “We’re homeward bound from the Arctic ground, rolling down to Old Maui.”

The centuries-old harmonies overlapped, swelling to the corners of the original ceiling. Dozens of patrons stomped on the uneven wooden floorboards as they sang, sloshing Guinness over the rims of their pint glasses.

“It just gets the cobwebs out of your soul,” said Kitsie Reeves, 68, a former flight attendant who has loved sea music for decades. “It’s like a porthole into the past.”

Reeves is among dozens of regulars who come to the Griswold Inn almost every Monday night for music by the Jovial Crew, a maritime band that has performed here for decades. The folk musicians — and their fans — sing songs that grow increasingly lusty as the moon rises and bar tabs lengthen.

The music is beautiful — arrestingly so. But participants also seek out a sense of community and a weekly ritual.

“It’s like church for people,” said Amanda Bunce, 38.

Bunce, an ecologist, has come almost every week for 18 years. During the pandemic, when the inn closed, the weeks lost their structure, she said.

“Since they opened back up, I almost haven’t missed a Monday,” she said, adding, “I felt like I needed that time marker.”

Sea chanteys (also spelled “sea shanties”) are just one form of maritime folk music, although they have come to stand for the entire genre. Back when ships were powered by wind and human biceps alone, these rhythmic tunes helped sailors haul rope in unison.

In early 2021, before COVID-19 vaccines were made widely available, one maritime song, “The Wellerman,” was an unlikely hit online. Singers sang duets, their harmonies rising across the internet as people turned to TikTok for refuge from lockdowns and short winter days.

But the maritime music tradition in Essex goes back decades.

For more than 50 years, devotees have come to hear Cliff Haslam, the lead singer, croon songs of the sea. In the mid-1980s, his solo act expanded, becoming the Jovial Crew.

Each week, the band plays at the Griswold Inn, known locally as the Gris, which is hung with American flags. It was established in 1776 and stands at the end of Main Street in Essex, a historic town of fewer than 7,000 people on Long Island Sound.

“People still come to listen,” said Haslam, his British accent still uncut after decades of living in the United States. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing it.”

This summer has been especially busy: Recently, the musicians had to start limiting the number of attendees, after the fire marshal started poking around the crowded bar.

For those who make it inside — longtime sea chantey fans as well as a more recent crowd of millennials — Monday evenings can get rowdy. In song after song, the landlubbers yip and stomp. Sometimes, they pretend to work together, hauling an invisible rope on beat. It’s like a “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” screening — but set on a whaling ship.

“When I describe this place to people, it’s ‘my Gris family,’” said Hillary Clifton, a 33-year-old high school science teacher who first came to chantey night as a child with her father.

Each week, her dad got the same thing: two Guinnesses, then a coffee. A longtime server — Lynn Ann Baldi, who celebrated her 60th birthday there on Labor Day — knew his order by heart.

“I left for like, five years — I moved to a different state,” Clifton said. “And when I came back, I felt like I was home again.”

Shawn Mulcahy, 34, who was leaning against the bar at the Gris on a recent Monday night, was in town for just five days: He had moved to California a few years ago, after spending five years as a regular.

“I don’t even like boats,” he said, laughing, as he dropped a $2 bill in the collection bucket. “I don’t like the ocean.”

But he wouldn’t miss this for anything. Out West, he plays chanteys on his own, nearly every Monday night, on a mandolin.

“It’s got a lot of nostalgia, wrapped in a bow,” he said.

Over the past 52 years, the band has expanded and changed. It has played through at least two hurricanes, lighting candles when the power dropped. It plays when friends die, letting chanteys become dirges. It even plays at weddings: At least three marriages have been born from conversations that started in the audience.

“They are our oldest act, and probably the longest-running tradition that we have,” said Joan Paul, a co-owner of the inn.

Chanteys are only one part of the maritime genre. The Jovial Crew also sings ballads and mournful whaling songs.

“We’re emotional historians,” said Michael Hotkowski, 33, a member of the band. “If you’re a good folk singer, you need to understand the emotional history.”

That’s the point of folk music, he said. It’s a time capsule of feeling.

“You can’t bottle that emotion up and look at it in a museum,” he said.

Maritime music has had an international following for decades. It has kept a foothold in the northeastern United States, too. Recently, the Connecticut Sea Music Festival migrated from Mystic, home of the seaport, to Essex, home of the Gris. And interest has expanded in the past decade or so, experts said.

Partially, that’s thanks to “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag,” a popular pirate video game from 2013 that used maritime music as its soundtrack. Then, “The Wellerman” rang out across TikTok.

“I think this appeals a lot to young people who are, in many ways, having fewer and fewer outlets for social participation in a kind of casual way,” said Joe Maurer, a lecturer in ethnomusicology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who researches maritime music.

The Jovial Crew is not interested in the social media revival — or “The Wellerman.”

It’s a little bit like asking an Irish band to play “Danny Boy,” said Joseph Morneault, a band member. Or, maybe, like expecting a country music artist to play “Cotton Eye Joe.”

In fact, if someone requested the song, the band would politely decline.

“We in the sea music field don’t like being boxed into always having to sing ‘Drunken Sailor,’” he said. “It just gets to be an irritant. We do all these great songs, and all you want to hear is ‘Wellerman’?”

Some songs are Connecticut-specific: the shad runs, the Sound. Others, especially some Colonial-era tunes, are impressively raunchy. (“Think of our Founding Fathers singing this song,” Morneault joked, right before starting one especially suggestive verse.)

Many are tough. Women cheat. Ships sink. Friends die.

That’s kind of the point, said Reeves, the longtime fan who is Morneault’s housemate. The songs are rough around the edges because life was rough around the edges.

After three sets, and many pints of Guinness, the musicians — and their fans — drain their drinks and settle up. Audience members help the band members load their instruments into their cars.

“See you next week,” they say.

And most will, said Will Jakubiak, 31, a regular.

“The shtick is: Every Monday is practice for next Monday night,” he said, “and that Monday for the following Monday. So if you mess up, it’s OK.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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