Let’s haul on some sea chanteys

As I’ve previously noted, the work songs went into the woods in the winter, carried by sailors who came ashore for the season. But few songs in return migrated from the forests to the sea.

Women’s names could be a clue to the, uh, moral integrity of many messages. “Sally” or “Nancy,” for instance, some more sterling than others.

Other work songs include chain-gang ditties or even the racist, “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” though it might fit what’s become of the minimum-wage American workplace.

As for spellings, I’m sticking with “chantey,” based on a scholarly friend’s insistence the notes having a chanter setting the pace. “Shanty” and “chanty,” though, are more common.

Here are some related facts.

  1. This folk music genre flourished aboard larger merchant vessels of the 19th century as a means of setting a rhythm to optimize joint labor involved in either a pulling or pushing motion, such as lifting anchor or setting sail, tasks that required working together for a long time. Think of circling a capstan. Think “Heave!” Or “Haul!”
  2. That’s why many of them are about whaling.
  3. The tradition soared in the period between the War of 1812 and the Civil War and died out with the arrival of steam-powered ships.
  4. Its roots, though, go way back through earlier work songs around the world, including stevedores loading and unloading ships.
  5. Some of the chanteys originated with African-Americans performing “cotton-screwing” on shore, using a large screw-jack to compress and bale cotton for shipment from Southern ports. Some of the incomprehensible words in the songs are attributed to this.
  6. Essentially, it’s a call-and-response form between the solo chantey man and the work crew.
  7. Sometimes they were accompanied by a bosun’s pipe, fife, drum, or fiddle.
  8. They were sung by pirates, too.
  9. About 200 were set down on paper, but thousands more were likely lost.
  10. Some may have been used when relaxing in the evening.


A few lives I almost had … but I’ve wound up here instead

Being of an age where I have more to look back on than what lies ahead, pondering forks in the road I followed, I find myself concluding they ultimately turned out for the best.

Still, there are moments when I wonder how my life would have gone if, say, things had turned out better with certain lovers or I hadn’t narrowly missed out in a desired career move – things that would have opened other avenues. In fact, a big goal all along had been to become financially independent so I could hunker down with my more literary writing, the thing I’ve been able to do in retirement.

Here’s a handful.

  1. Been hired by a really big daily newspaper. The Wall Street Journal, especially, had been interested until laying off a ton of editors and reporters just before my graduation. And there had been a brief flirtation from the Washington Post and, later, Detroit Free Press.. My dreams of living in a major city, with all of its fine arts cultural opportunities, vanished with that.
  2. Returned to my hometown after college. Well, it would have left me deeply rooted. Or, in one scenario, wedded into a wealthy family on the other side of town, with all of the opportunities that would have afforded. But would I have found that too confining? (Said girlfriend ultimately did.) Instead, I was off into hippie communion and poverty-line journalist existence in foothills a few hours from New York City.
  3. Stayed in the ashram or at least the Asian spiritual stream. Yoga had saved my life and was a hot field, if I had been more entrepreneurial. But I wouldn’t have encountered Quakers and my family roots. Instead, leap ahead a few steps.
  4. Not persuaded my fiancée to overcome her jitters. That is, freed me to move on without her. She may have even closed off a few upward moves for us toward the end.
  5. Stayed with the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, had its major grant not been slashed shortly after being renewed. I would have had another four years in a big university setting, and my first wife could have earned her degree there rather than being uprooted. It might even have led me to graduate school and an academic career after all. But I did have dreams of mountains and wilderness, or else recognition as a poet, and those all led to the next fork.
  6. Remained in the Pacific Northwest. Despite the grueling demands of the office, my professional career was also exciting and on an upward swing. I was making inroads as a poet, too, and with the mountains and forests, I was living a dream. But there were dark clouds as well, any of which could have erupted even had I been able to relocate to the western side of the Cascades. Instead, I was soon in an eastward ricochet.
  7. Not faced marital difficulties. That is, had she been faithful rather than leading to divorce. Add to that my near miss with a big management job at America’s eighth biggest newspaper and its sterling ownership. Well, I probably would have had that big heart attack, too. Instead, I rebounded into a whirlwind romance with a sprite who seemed to be everything I ever desired. Leading to the next set of painful forks.
  8. Moved to Baltimore or managed to remain, including marriage to the dream of my life. First, that engagement went up in smoke and left me, well, a pile of emotional ashes. My hot job on the road covering 14 states turned into a dead end. And I failed to find a shared mission with a devoted lover who would have desired to have children together. From the start, I could have moved to, say, Boston, instead. At least I was able to give myself a sabbatical and hunker down writing for a year amid the debris.
  9. Had a book manuscript click with an agent or, more vitally, a commercial publisher. Or even a few critics. My goal of becoming financially independent kept slipping away, though my later friendship with one celebrated author has shown me how precarious that bestseller life can be. As for having a book take off? A writer can get trapped by success.
  10. Married the Georgian. She swept me off my feet, and how, maybe because she seemed to embody everything I thought I desired, as well as what she said she desired, as her mother reminded her. Yes, it was exciting, but after just a month, she panicked. Frankly, I soon saw it would have been a disaster. In addition, she never would have fit in as an editor’s wife, much less in any of the roles that might have opened later.

When I look at the forks I chose to follow, I have to admit the one of going back into the ranks of the newsroom rather than management was crucial. The reasons I stayed there could easily fill another Tendril.

So what’s on your agenda for today?

Do any of you have a recurring sensation of falling further behind in what you’re hoping to accomplish in a given day?

Is it one of the curses of being a “responsible adult”?

The mere thought of being seen as lazy or unproductive stirs up feelings of guilt and shame within me.

I can’t even imagine setting out without a to-do list. How about you?

And here I am, supposedly retired.

Not that I’m complaining. Now please excuse me while I move on to the next item.


My, aren’t we feeling precious?

I cringe when I hear someone extolling poets – or anyone else in a given field, say professional athletes – as a somehow superior species.

Even outstanding individuals need to be tempered as imperfect humans rather than extolled as gods.

Not that we shouldn’t keep striving toward excellence.

How do we take pride in our own accomplishments while staying humbly grounded?

‘Nine-to-five’ rarely fits what I saw

I used to be surprised by all the working-age adults on the street and in stores on weekdays, not just housewives, but now more likely the invisible off-hours employees on the job nights and weekends, especially at minimum wage in a 24/7 economy.

Not that I was that much on that schedule, either. I mean, I was working nights and weekends.

Think, too, of all those who work holidays – police, fire, nurses, ER personnel, toll-booth collectors, air traffic controllers, bus-train-plane-airport staffers, restaurants, convenience store, even grocery and pharmacy, plus journalists, entertainers, utility line, gas station attendants, theater crews.

The 9-to-5 bit starts to look spoiled. Besides, an 8 o’clock start was more likely, to allow for a lunch break.

We’re in the midst of a quiet but widespread labor strike

The so-called “worker shortage” needs to have a new label, along with a clearer perspective. In too many ways, that “explanation” often comes down to blaming the victim, with its sense that people who are unemployed are lazy.

Not that those bandying the charge would accept the conditions of those “help wanted” positions. You know, the “entry-level” openings that are really no-respect, dead-end drudgery and require “reliable transportation” on late nights and weekends at minimum wage. Sorry, it doesn’t add up.

Or the plight of the long-haul independent truckers who are burdened by the costs of their rigs and the long hours away from their homes and families. As many of them age, they’re hanging it up and nobody’s stepping into the trap. Well, that’s one aspect of the “supply-chain problems” we’re encountering.

And then we should also admit the number of people who are simply unemployable today, sometimes for medical, mental, or emotional conditions.

What we’re seeing is a confluence of long-simmering problems finally erupting in the aftermath of Covid.

The health-care system is a prime example, far more complicated than we dare get into here. But Europe seems to train its doctors at less cost and in less time than we do in the USA, and there are arguments that primary-care physicians are capable of delivering much that we’re turning over to costly specialists. Much of the staff, meanwhile, has minimal health benefits, if any.

Wages adjusted for inflation have been declining for decades.

Breaking the unions has been a factor, along with company expectations of 24/7 availability plus worker loyalty without extending reciprocal security.

Keeping stores open seven days a week, by the way, is a relatively new custom. It does add to the low-pay “help wanted” slots.

At the core, what workers are selling is their time is exchange for something, not all of it money. They’re finding that many jobs aren’t worth the cost to them once child care, transportation, clothing, and the like are factored in.

There’s also the trap of being pitted against lower paid labor elsewhere (not just China) without reaping any of the profits from higher productivity here, which has been ballooning in the wealth of the superrich but definitely not trickling down.

One of the surprises has been the number of workers in their 50s who have been dropping out, especially males. Perhaps they’re working on their own “under the table,” but many have simply “had it” with the drag. Work, from what I’ve too often seen, no longer earns any respect. And the traditional work ethic carries an unwritten requirement of being paid a livable wage in exchange. Again, it’s not adding up.

Has anyone connected crackdowns on undocumented residents and their being deported with the shortages? These were the invisible workforce that was sustaining so much of the economy. As I was saying about respect?

Posts on my Chicken Farmer blog examine work and jobs in much more detail from a personal level.

From that perspective, I’d say we’re encountering a free-market reaction to low pay and unrewarding employment situations. This one-by-one, “disorganized labor” job action will be much more difficult to address than the traditional sitting down at a negotiating table and emerging with a new contract.

Is anybody even talking about the big picture here? I’d like to know.

Scalloping in the dead of winter

There’s not a lot of meat in one of these, but what there is will be treasured by many seafood lovers.

This time of year, I hear the puttering motors in the chill air before the sun’s even up as the fishing boats head out to drag the depths for scallops. No matter how low the thermometer reading or how bad the weather, the vessels venture by, or attempt to, intent on catching their daily limit of ten or 15 gallons a day in a season that runs no more than 50 or 70 days but may close earlier, depending on the sustainable harvest in each of the regulated zones.

Rigged with a boom for the heavy chain net that drags the seafloor for scallops, this vessel returns to port with its harvest.

A day not out on the water of the bays around Eastport is a day’s income that’s lost for the season. The economics of fishing are precarious enough.

These intrepid fishermen shuck their catch onboard, tossing the shells overboard, which provides grounding for the breeding of more, and then return to port with their precious harvest, often well before noon.

A shell flies toward the water as these fishermen quickly shuck the precious bivalves onboard.

The licenses are coveted and even the size of crews is limited by state law.

Come summer, many of the boats, with their rigging reconfigured, and their crews will have turned their attention to lobster.

Other important harvests here are urchins and clams.

What workers impress you the most when they’re out in bad weather?