The Gam, More Songs the Whalemen Sang, by E. Gale Huntington. Loomis House Press, Camsco Music, black and white photos, illustrations, 404 pages. Paperback, $29.95.
E. Gale Huntington is a Vineyard original. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum library is named after him, for his huge contribution to the museum and its collections, where he worked as both librarian and archivist. He was the founder and 19-year editor of the museum’s historical publication: The Intelligencer. He taught at the Tisbury High School, was a dropline fisherman in the summer and a bay scalloper in the fall. And in his spare time he made music.
Alone or with his wife Mildred and other musicians, he sang, played the fiddle and the guitar. He played in a group that included Mike Athearn on accordion or guitar, Hollis Smith on fiddle, Ernest Correllus on banjo, and Thomas Hart Benton on harmonica. He created the record, Folksongs from Martha’s Vineyard, which is still available from Smithsonian Folkways.
Mr. Huntington is perhaps best known for his huge contribution to maritime folk songs. In 1964, his book, Songs the Whalemen Sang, a collection of sea chanties, became a major contribution to the folk music community. That book was reprinted several times. It went out of print for decades, but was recently brought back by Mystic Seaport in 2006. It is a 328-page treasure.
Though Gale died in 1993, in 2010 Sam Henry’s Songs of the People, co-authored with Lani Herrmann, was published by University of Georgia Press. It is considered a Bible of Irish songs, ballads and fiddle tunes.
And now, 21 years after Mr. Huntington’s death, there is a new book: The Gam, More Songs the Whalemen Sang, a sequel to Songs the Whalemen Sang. Certain communities have known about this unpublished book for decades. Friends of the family, and friends in the world of sea chantey singing (this writer and singer included), have known about its existence. But publishing is a fluky business. There were false starts. But now it is here.
Sea chanteys are an insight into maritime life of years ago. Whalemen traveled the globe in search of whales, spending years at sea with plenty of time to think of loved ones at home, and of places and stories. Singing was a far more common pastime than it is today. Today we listen to songs that are recorded. But for those who lived in the 1800s, if they wanted to hear music they had to sing.
For whalemen, sea chanteys were their entertainment, their leisure and their work songs. Aboard each ship was a chanteyman, one who could lead the crew in songs that had rhythm when they raised or lowered sail. Music was used to coordinate the pulling. And there was plenty of pulling.
But The Gam is not just a collection of songs sung by whalemen and their fellow sailors. It is poetry and stories, in addition to melodies of the day. The Vineyard is well represented in this collection.
Joseph Chase Allen, a long-time maritime writer with the Vineyard Gazette, was tapped for his memory of old tunes such as The Old Bog Hole, a song Joe learned from his grandfather.
Welcome Tilton, another celebrated Chilmarker, is represented with a number of songs, and not all with maritime subjects. Welcome contributed the song Ella Rhee, a song about the loss of a young lady in Tennessee.
The City of Columbus, a steamer that sank tragically off Devil’s Bridge under the Gay Head Cliffs on a cold, dark hour on Jan. 18, 1885, is perhaps the region’s most horrific maritime accident. Many men, women and children were lost. Gale included four versions of the song related to this tale.
When Songs the Whalemen Sang was first published, Joseph Chase Allen wrote favorably about it. His words are just as applicable today with The Gam.
“Many of these songs would have been forever lost had it not been for the work of Mr. Huntington . . . .None save a person who loves music and song could have entered upon such a project, so prolonged and so involved. None save a natural musician could have been buoyed up by the thrill of each new discovery to a pitch which enhanced his interest, strengthened his courage and renewed his physical endurance.”
The Ocean King (found in the records of the Ship Nauticon, on her maiden voyage in 1848)
Landsmen who live on the dull tame shore
Love their homes but ours we love more
Oh a ship and salt water messmates for me
There’s nothing on earth like the open sea.
Landsmen are green boys I have a notion
They don’t know the fun that’s had on the ocean
But contented they live in one spot all their lives
Like honey bees messmates they stick to their hives
Oh give me the ocean naught but the salt sea
Is a fit home messmates for hearts that are free
Ho boys ho then let us all sing
To the glory of Neptune the ocean’s king.