Shelter at Chantey in the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park
A national park became a world leader in marine music before it was trending
By Jonathan Horwitz
As Covid-19 spread around the world, something else went viral online – sea canteens. And a national park became a world leader in marine music before it was trending.
The folk tunes sung on board of 19th century sailing ships to coordinate tasks such as pulling nets and mooring anchors experienced a rebirth in 2021 thanks to the social media platforms TikTok and Youtube. one Techno rendition by Wellerman, a 150-year-old New Zealand whaling ballad, peaked at number 1 on the UK Billboard Top 100 chart in the first week of March.
What does this have to do with the American national parks?
The San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park is way ahead of the trend, having hosted monthly Chantey chants on Hyde St. Pier since the 1980s.
Before the pandemic, a handful of rangers and dozens of visitors gathered aboard the Eureka, a 19th-century ferry, to play maritime music to their hearts’ content until late at night.
Ranger Peter Kasin has it Chantey sings since 1996. Kasin, a friendly man with a baritone voice and a big smile, is better known for his sociability than for driving a narrow ship. It has been reported that the only rules in his singing are: no drinking, no smoking, and no jumping off the pier.
That is not to say that the casino is not organized. In 30 years he has rarely missed a chant. And when the monthly amount got too big for the sailing ship Balclutha, he quickly found a new home for her on the larger ferry.
While Kasin makes sure that the monthly meetups run like clockwork, he keeps the atmosphere organic and improvisational. Apart from the fact that every singalong starts and ends with the same two chanties, everyone can join in with their maritime melodies of their choice.
“There’s no set list or anything,” says Kasin. “It’s very spontaneous.”
Kasin is unique among park rangers for having made another spontaneous decision in 1989 – to join the National Park Service to indulge his love of marine music. When friends took him to his first chant at the San Francisco Maritime Park, Kasin said he had a “revelation” on the protective deck of the Balclutha.
“I saw a park ranger with a guitar that had about 70 people singing and he said, ‘Oh my god, I love this,'” recalls Kasin. “I immediately decided that I wanted to do that.”
He walked up to the ranger, introduced himself, and the rest is history. After volunteering in the park for two years, Kasin became an interpretive ranger.
When the pandemic canceled face-to-face gatherings, Kasin made another impromptu decision about how to continue the Singalong tradition shortly before retirement.
He has moved the monthly Chantey Sings online to Zoom and continues to lead the virtual meetups, despite retiring from his other ranger duties last spring.
The decision was a great success. According to the casino, virtual attendance often exceeds 1,000 guests, including people from all over the world.
Pauline Grousset is one such international participant. The 24-year-old French woman says she is often the youngest Chantey singer in virtual meetups and sometimes the furthest from San Francisco.
However, Grousset tunes in from nine time zones – sings to the rising sun while Kasin and his company sing to the moon – because she says there is nothing quite like the San Francisco Chantey sings. And she would know. Grousset is writing her master’s thesis on marine music festivals as a musicologist at the Sorbonne in Paris.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, especially in France because we don’t have institutions like national parks,” Grousset said in a Zoom interview.
Such is the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, which is also home to the largest museum and research collection in the National Park Servicehas become a bastion of the maritime history of the American Pacific as well as nautical traditions from around the world.
“The San Francisco program is important because marine music has to be sung together,” said Grousset. As most of the music festivals have been canceled due to the coronavirus, she adds, “It’s really good that they managed to keep the singing going even during the pandemic.”
Maritime Cantons are celebrated monthly at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park as they played an important role in coordinating ship work. In order to raise the sails, turn the winch and man the pumps of the ship, the sailors had to work together in rhythm. The Chanteys also helped to lift the mood during the often monotonous and backbreaking work. Bring home official parking product by the Western National Parks Association.
Though sailors once considered it taboo to sing chantey on land, Kasin began recording songs from his homeland last spring to expand the park’s virtual ranger services.
For more information on sea canteens, see Shelter-in-Chantey Series on the website of the marine park.
Addendum of the traveler: To quench your thirst for chantey for a moment, check out the 2019 film Fisherman’s Friends, which is based on real Cornish fishermen who became famous after signing a recording deal for their chantey.
General information on singing can be found at https://maritime.org
At https://maritime.org/sea-chantey-sign-up/ you can sign up to conduct a song at the virtual Chantey Sing on April 17th.