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On The Good Ship Lollipop

March 8, 2007

One of the most life-affirming experiences I've had since moving to San Francisco more than six years ago is attending the Chantey Sing on the Balclutha, one of six historical vessels docked at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park’s ship museum at Hyde Street Pier. I went on Saturday night, having found out about the event via a random poster a few months ago. The Chantey Sing, the largest and oldest event of its kind in the country (it attracts upwards of 150 people and has been going since 1981) takes place on the first Saturday evening of every month from 8pm to midnight. It's free -- you just need to call the the National Park Service chantey phoneline to sign up (415 561 7171.) Anyone within commuting distance of San Francisco should make the pilgrimage.

The Balclutha is a beautiful 19th century cargo ship. It was built in England in the mid 1800s and traveled the world until 1930, when it was retired. From its expansive deck at night, you can see all of San Francisco's waterline lit up. The Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory sign looms large in yellow light. The neon signs of the Fisherman's Wharf bars reflect puddles of green and red light on the water too. There are few tourists waving cameras. It's pretty magical.

The best thing about the Chantey Sing is the community aspect. I don't think I've ever been to a public music event that's so collaborative. Even karaoke has more of a system to it -- at least at The Mint in The Castro (the most well known karaoke bar in town) you have to sign up to sing songs. There's a pecking order and a queue. But at the Chantey Sing, everyone (about 200 people the night I went) piles below deck into a big, low-ceilinged room and the singing begins, apparently without prompting or hierarchy.

Chanteys -- sailors' work songs -- are devised in "call and response" form, which means that an individual (or "chanteyman") leads the song by singing the verses, and then the rest of the group joins in with the refrains. Anyone can lead a song at the Hyde Street Pier event thanks to the "open session" format and most of the crowd enjoys bursting in with the catchy, repetitive refrains. Some people even add harmonies, ad hoc. Lots of salty, open fifths. When a song finishes, there's a brief pause before someone else simply dives in with the next number. The event attracts quite a few regulars (many of them, aging white men with beards, paunches, and ponytails carrying guitars, mandolins and accordions) so there are lots of strong voices as well as a high familiarity with some of the songs.

The organizers serve free hot cider and coco during the breaks. People can explore the Balclutha’s nooks and crannies and even pet Stretch, the ship’s fat ginger cat, often to be found napping in the sailors’ quarters. The night I attended, a young, curly-mopped fiddler struck up a jaunty tune on the deck while drinks were being served. Another guy joined in on a pair of plastic spoons. Soon another fiddle player came along. Finally, a scrawny guy in bare feet started dancing a mad jig. The music made me want to dance.

Another lovely thing about the Chantey Sing is that you can come and go as you please. So if you've had enough singing for one evening, there's always the Buena Vista cafe a few yards away, home of the "original Irish coffee."

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