Sea chanties have been in the media spotlight for the past few weeks, a cheery respite from the grim news cycle of January 2021. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of joining Pomona College professor Gibb Schreffler and his Maritime Music class on a sailboat as students practiced singing sea chanties while hoisting sails in the Los Angeles Harbor.
I recently spoke with sea chanty expert Gibb Schreffler (who published a paper about spelling chanty with a “C”). He was not too surprised the musical genre had been revived again, noting the popularity of sea chanties in 2013 when Assassin’s Creed 4 incorporated them in the video game. Before he taught a Pomona College class about maritime music, he organized the Sea Chanty & Maritime Music Ensemble (see the ensemble’s 2014 performance on YouTube).
I just love this Southern California angle on sea chanties! Most would be surprised that a bunch of Southern California college students have been learning about sea chanties and then singing them while working on an actual sailboat. Schreffler’s research also looks at the critical role African Americans have played in creating the music genre, another perspective that deserves more attention in current chanty coverage. Schreffler has much to say on the topic and he really should be on every music journalist’s virtual rolodex (more about his class at Pomona College).
“My vision is that someday the chanty genre will be recognized as an ancestor to later African American and, indeed, all American music in the same way as it is standard, when narrating the history of Jazz for example, to invoke ‘field hollers’ and the Blues.” — Gibb Schreffler
On a personal note, revisiting the sights and sounds from this moment had me wistful about San Pedro’s now-demolished Ports O’Call. When we all gathered in 2017, we were surrounded by the lovely quirkiness of this faded 1962 seaside village. Now the demolished space sits empty, waiting for new development to fully wash away any memory that such kitsch ever existed (except only on Google Maps).
Perhaps this is why I’ve listened to this audio clip of Schreffler and his class singing “Leave Her Johnny, Leave Her” over and over and over. I recorded this bit once we were off the boat and standing in front of buildings designed with an “improbable mix of New England, Spanish Colonial and Asian themes” (to quote an LA Times reporter). Far away from the breezy decks of the Exy Johnson, professor and students circled around my microphone to sing a few bars at we stood in one of the nautical courtyards. Listening to this audio is bittersweet for me as their sea chanty singing transports me back to the last time that I stood inside Ports O’Call.