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Mon, 12.16.1991

The Northern Neck Chantey Singers preserve Black work songs

The Northern Neck Chantey Singers, b&w

The beginning of the Northern Neck Chantey Singers in 1991 is celebrated on this date.

Chanties are songs that Black fishermen would sing while working on the fishing boats. The song’s function was to make work go better. In the case of the menhaden fishermen, the songs rhythmically coordinated the efforts of hauling in the nets to bring fish to the surface.  Chanties were uncommon in American commercial fisheries, and menhaden Chanties are for the most part unrelated to traditional and better known, "sea chanties" that flourished among the crews of 19th century American and British transatlantic sailing ships.

On the Northern Neck region of Virginia, a peninsula lying between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers, this group of men, former fishermen in their 70s and 80s, has been keeping alive this uncommon legacy of Black work songs. As young men, they worked aboard fishing boats where they pulled up hand nets teeming with menhaden from the waters of the Chesapeake and Atlantic.  From long rowboats, as many as 40 men hauled in a "purse seine," a net filled with thousands of pounds of fish. To accomplish this backbreaking feat, they sang what were called "chanties" to coordinate their movements. Machinery has now replaced this onerous job.

These fishermen's work songs could have been heard on boats out of Virginia and North Carolina, wherever they pursued the great migrating schools of menhaden along the Atlantic coast from New Jersey to the Gulf of Mexico. William Hudnall organized the Northern Neck Chantey Singers at the request of the Greater Reedville Association and the Association's Museum Committee. The association found some singers in Virginia for the 1991 Fourth of July program. Since that Independence Day debut, interest in the group has been so great that it is still performing to this day.

All of these men worked on the water during the time when chanties were sung. Chanties and work songs in general, occupy a special place in African American culture. The harmony brings everybody together on the same chord at the same time, making the work easier.

Reference:
Reference Library of Black America, Volumes 1 through 5
Edited by Mpho Mabunda
Copyright 1998, Gale Research, Detroit, MI

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