And that’s how I felt last night ascending the gangplank to the Balclutha boat moored on Hyde St. Pier in San Francisco. I could hear the lusty singing of sea chanteys and when I stepped through the door into the room, I was lifted up on the mighty wave of the sound and gently set down in my seat for one of the more delightful evenings I’ve had in a long time.
I have to confess that normally in a situation like this my judgemental mind is hard at work scoping out all the things that make the experience less than what I think it should be. There often is a quality of “special interest nerd” that rankles me—folk dancing groups, recorder gatherings, bird watchers, etc. (No intention to offend here—just my perception.) But that judgemental mind was swallowed up in the power of the gathering, folks of all sizes and shapes and beard colors and lengths singing so beautifully and so soulfully. It was a Gospel choir without the offbeat, a church choir without the dogma, a hootenanny without guitars and all of the above and more.
The Sea Chantey is such a powerful form, balancing the story and style of the solo singer with the booming participation of the response, easily learned and simply sung. There was a song leader of sorts at the center of the event, but it was also democracy at its best, opening the floor to anyone who had a song. And at least twenty people did. No introduction to the song or short personal resume, someone just starts singing and the group jumps in. If the song is new, there might be one sentence—“This is the chorus”— and next time it arrives, the group has it.
I was particularly moved by the range of ages there and the number of children as well. And—miracle of miracles!— not a single one with a hand-held electronic device!!! They were actually participating or simply engulfed in the sea of sound and hopefully feeling as I did—“Something important is happening here.” Something that they may store away in the treasure chest of memory to take out in the dark nights to come and be warmed all over again.
That experience of true community, all ages gathered together, is universal and timeless and the first thing I admire about cultures that haven’t gone over too far into machines as their center of public discourse and specialization as the yardstick that measures every corner of creation. We in the land of office cubicles, planned communities, targeted youth markets and affinity groups are used to segmenting society so each is a kind of gang member hanging out with like-minded and like-aged peers. But here, instead of the usual grey heads at the symphony or jazz festival concert, pierced faces and tattooed bodies at the rock happening, preschoolers belting out Bingo or elders in nursing homes eking out Bye Bye Blackbird, we were all united by these rollicking, rowdy, boisterous, lusty songs born from the rough life of sailors singing to pass the time or organize their work. The egos and judgements and differences between us were all checked at the door without any reminder needed.
At the break, we were treated to hot cider, the twinkling lights of Ghiradelli Square through the masts and the rigging with the moon rising and the water lapping. Look to the right and there’s the beckoning Golden Gate Bridge, off to the left, more glittering from downtown San Francisco and the Bay Bridge. The hum of light conversation in the air, the bite of the evening chill warmed by the hot tea and cider. Beautiful!
Sometimes it’s best to keep such things secret, but there is also the desire to share the riches. So if you live in San Francisco or are planning to visit, call the Hyde Street Pier and get your name on the list for the next gathering. Always the first Saturday of each month. Oh, and did I mention it’s free?
Yo, ho, matey, heave ho and shiver me timbers!