The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #172462   Message #4174727
Posted By: Gibb Sahib
16-Jun-23 - 11:40 PM
Thread Name: New Chanties Documentary
Subject: RE: New Chanties Documentary
Thanks for the comments, everyone. I really appreciate it.

Steve, you're very kind to suggest the award thing. It's a bit rough around the edges, so I think maybe not; moreover, I wouldn't know where to start! Rather, my hope is that some museum-type place would be interested to include a portion of the movie in their program. I tried to create some sections that might be excerpted, especially to good use by the local maritime museum in Philadelphia; will reach out to them in time, without any presumption.

[WARNING: Verbose, extraneous commentary incoming!]

The brake windlass story was my focus, and I could not flesh out any kind of “history of chanteys” that would satisfy many audiences. Nevertheless, I had to set it up somehow, since my thesis is that the brake windlass was of significance at a particular point in a story about the trajectory of chanteys’ development.

The stark, direct framing of "roots in Black people of the Americas" (and the more familiar story of the misunderstanding of slaves’ singing) in that brief background intro is to set up the tone I'm trying to create: one that brings a degree of "seriousness" to the subject that I find wanting in other media. It's not that I want to remove the fun element, but rather that as I see it, the topic of chanteys in popular media is almost exclusively jokey and silly. That has its place, but my thought is that too much jokiness has alienated the demographic of people who work on ships. Whereas "they" like play and fun, too, I sense a kind of embarrassment on the part of many, that provokes them to distance themselves from the genre. A common perception (and not unreasonable, though a generalization) is that singing chanteys is something that comparatively clueless landlubbers do, which doesn't truly "respect" what the sailors do (their skills, knowledge, hard work, courage). I don’t claim it's like that for everyone, I’m just observing a *general* divide between chanteys as they manifest in the general public vs. among ships' crews. I’m afraid that (some) folk singers think that because they’ve read up in Hugill on what work applications were, they are honoring the mariners’ tradition. I genuinely don’t find *fault* in that (who am I to criticize, anyway?). It’s not an intentional thing, it's in good faith, nevertheless I think the unintended effect is revealed in how sailors feel about it all.
I want to bring "dignity" to chantey singing that comports better with sailors' perceptions of their identities so that they can find a way to better identify with the songs and, maybe, begin to start incorporating chanteys more in their activities. So it doesn't feel silly or pretentious to sing chanteys but more genuine and more in a way where the sailors can shape the narrative and presentation.

I am addressing my belief that although chanteys do "function," they are not "needed" as such. I think, intuitively, sailors balk at landlubbers' emphasis on a narrative of chanteys filling a practical need and which doesn't jive with "need" as they understand it. That misaligned understanding of need is what makes chantey singing feel pretentious (and open to ridicule). There is some irony in that one might think that emphasizing practical function gets us closer to the "seriousness" of practical function and away from (superfluous) "entertainment." Yet, that configuration of the idea of need feels like a lie. The need is something less tangible, like a cultural need or way-of-life. We sing more so because it's "who we are," it's "what we do," it's "how we feel at home in the world," it’s "how we express ourselves." Chanteys, then, function within that construction of one's physical and psychological set up; they make "things," in general, go well rather than specifically serve a given work task. I suppose that's the sort of relationship to singing that was notable among (although not exclusive to) early Black Americans and which spread to other communities with chanteys, and which was "lost" when chantey practice departed from ships.   

Whereas the most explicit aim of the movie is to make my argument about the brake windlass's significance accessible, the "shadow" motive is to inch toward a repair of the connection between different communities who sing (or might sing) the songs. I don’t have any thought-out prescriptions for what anyone “should” do. I just feel that the genre has been uprooted from sailing culture, re-planted in sailing fantasy, and that maybe this is fine and inevitable but it’s worth trying to see who might want to put it back in the sailing culture, especially if that has been obstructed by poor exchange of information.

I recently saw social media posts on behalf of a certain traditional ship’s crew that was saying something like “If you’re able to sing a chantey, you’re not working hard enough.” That kind of misunderstanding, and how we got there, seems to me a shame.