More SEACHORD NEWS and STORIES
Mike was in the studio on and off all last winter with Hank Cramer, recording a new album of sea-songs for the USS Constellation.
This project was rewarded with a concert tour this past summer.
Here are some of Mike's recollections of that adventure.
I've known Hank Cramer from the middle 80's when we used to hang out at the Victory Music open mic at the Antique Sandwich in Tacoma, WA. Here was a guy with a full bass voice, lots of humor, and pleasing guitar style who could do straight ahead folk and Celtic with the best. We eventually worked together on two albums, Victory Sings at Sea and Curse of the Somers, produced by Philip Morgan, as fund raisers for Victory Music.
I knew that Hank had become quite active on the festival circuit and was quite surprised when he called about a year ago. He told me of a trip he made to the east coast during the summer of '02, which included a concert in Baltimore on the pier where the square-rigged warship, the U.S.S. Constellation, is moored. A trip to the gift shop led Hank to ask, "Where are the chantey albums?" The clerk said they didn't have any and why didn't Hank make one. As he describes it, he did not heed the advice he learned during his army career - Don't let your alligator mouth get your humming-bird ass in trouble. He answered in his North Carolina-Irish way, "O.K." His phone call was more than chat, and he asked me if I would be willing to work on the album. I was flattered and answered in the affirmative. This was going to be great!
A dozen or so musicians began work at David Laing's studio in Edgewood, WA in December and by March had a very respectable product of traditional chanteys ready to go. There had been some talk along the way of doing a concert tour with the album, and Hank was busy hammering out those details during April and May-all in response to that bit about the alligator and hummingbird. By June we got the confirmation that the park service in charge of the Constellation did indeed want to have us do three shows pierside to commemorate the restoration of the ship. When the folks who operate the U.S.S. Constitution in Boston heard what we were up to they asked us to do two performances in their museum. How could we say, "No?" I still don't believe it.
We left Seatac on July 14th. Our group consisted of Hank and his wife, Kit McLean, David Hakala, Mark Iler, Josie Solseng, Burt and Di Meyer, Jess McKeegan, Martha Yakovleff, and my wife, Val, and. me. Our wait at the airport was not without music. Burt, the concertina player, had a strategy. He would pull the concertina out and just start to noodle some Irish jig. David would almost imperceptably begin to follow on the fiddle. Josie would then start a harmony line to David on her fiddle. Mark would begin to work his Tacoma Papoose at about the same time that Di would begin an easy strum on her guitar and Jess would bring in a light airy background on the whistle. Val would begin a little vocal harmony and I would start a syncopated knee slap, a la spoons. Hank would then start in singing a rousing number from the album or related tune. By this time the crowd had started to gather, and that's when kit would haul out the box of albums and start making change. This process worked on numerous occasions wherever we went from airports to pubs to city parks. I still wonder if anyone missed a flight because they were listening to the music and could not hear the PA system announcing departures and arrivals.
We spent the first couple of days at Hank's mom's place, visiting West Point, and the local environs. On our way to Baltimore we did a tour of the Martin Guitar Factory and stayed overnight in Cape May NJ. Yes, we used the Burt method to take over a pub, as well as the starboard deck of the Cape May ferry the next day. There was Kit at each location. Kaching, kaching.
Our host for the Baltimore concert, Chris Rowsom, was very gracious and allowed us to stay aboard ship for the two nights we were in Baltimore. What an experience. Forget the Lincoln bedroom at the Whitehouse. One could almost smell the meals cooking in the crew's mess mixed with the aromas of oakum, tar, salt air, and black powder residue. As I slept on the gundeck, my thoughts went back to the comfortable bunk I slept in the summer before aboard the carrier Constellation, CV 64. There I was in Baltimore, a most fortunate common person, a human link between 200 years of our history, having been nestled in the arms of these two magnificient ships on opposite sides of the country. How many people can be so fortunate?
The concerts were well attended, and folks had a rowsing good time. That includes the audience. The weather held for the 5 hours we performed. It was the only day in weeks that rain didn't drench the town all day long. As soon as we finished our last tune it rained. How slick is that? Off we went to Boston.
Driving in Boston is like reality dodgem cars. The roads not under construction need to be, and the new subway construction made life in the fast or slow lanes even more interesting. We finally made it to the Charleston NavyYard, the Constitution's permanent moorage, at about 9:00 PM. The gate attendants were not impressed by the fact that a chantey band, which had driven up from Baltimore, was saying that we were suppossed to be staying at the marine barracks on site - built in 1840 - the oldest marine barracks in the country. Right. We finally got things squared away and headed to the barracks, three flights up, and crashed.
The Constitution Museum is a beautifully maintained building on the site of the now inoperative Charleston Navy Yard, not far from the Bunker Hill Monument. We did two performances and still had plenty of daylight to roam around town. Val and I headed to Bunker Hill, mentioned we were in town doing music, and were immediately taken under the wing of one of the guides, a retired Navy Yard worker. We asked directions for places here and there, at which time he hollered to his boss, "Hey, don't look for me. I'm taking these folks on a walking tour down to the harbor." So there we were. We heard stories about the neighborhoods we passed through that most people never hear. Did you know that the leaning chimneys in Boston are that way because the prevailing winds cause more precipitation to soak into the brick on one side rather than another, and when a freeze hits the ice causes the mortar to expand, permanently tilting the chimney? Some even fall over! He was full of these kinds of stories.
We eventually made it to the harbor and hopped a ferry to the business district. I wanted to have lunch at Durgin Park, a place I had been about 25 years ago. They're known for their huge steaks, low prices, and incredibly rude wait staff. It's all part of the ambience. Well, the food and prices were as I remembered, but where were the cold stares and insults of the waitresses? A little disappointed, I asked about this. The waitress said that it became necessary to cool things down a bit- but she did throw a napkin at me so that my nostalgic requirements weren't completely ignored. It was a great lunch! On the way back to to our billet we noticed an Irish pub called the Black Rose. Could it be possible that this place needed a band? We took it over later that night. AAAAAAAgh Matey!
We left Newark a couple of days later after a brief stay at Hank's mom's place. Yes, Burt did his thing while we waited for the plane, which allowed Kit to do her thing. The weather had been quite humid and hot during our entire stay. When the pilot announced that Seattle weather was 59 degrees and partly cloudy, a cheer went up from, the passengers. This doesn't mean we had a bad time or wouldn't go back. In fact, we've been invited back to both venues next August. Maybe see you there.
Here are a few quotes from Sing Out! magazine's review of the CD:
- " A marvelous album of sea-songs and tavern sing-alongs... one of the most
beautiful and accomplished albums of sea songs I've ever heard."
- "It's a rare disc that boasts both expert musical skill and careful academic attention to detail."
- "There are no bad tracks on Constellation, but a few stand above the rest. "Man of War" and "Truxtun's victory" are macho, bellicose odes to the strength of America's fledgling Navy. You might not like to take tea with the men who composed these lyrics, but they're fun to sing along to..."
- "The gem of the disc...is "Pleasant and Delightful", an aptly named sentimental tavern song of a sailor leaving his love on shore. The melody slides up and down arpeggios, then jumps up a major sixth: not an easy interval. Not only does Cramer nail every note without a quaver, but the whole company does the same in their several harmonies. The result is sublime."