The Story of SERVICE, Part 3: Music All Over the Ocean

On July 26, a mural named SERVICE was dedicated at UNC’s School of Government in the Knapp-Sanders Building. The mural, depicting a gathering of African-American leaders at the counter of a diner, was painted by Colin Quashie as a creative interpretation of the historical 1960 Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-in. We will be featuring each of the eight panels in a series, highlighting some of the people represented. Visit our SERVICE mural post archive to read more.

Today we welcome a guest post about the SERVICE mural and the Menhaden Fishing Fleet and Chanteymen panel from David Cecelski, author of The Waterman’s Song and coauthor of Democracy Betrayed.

Many of the historical figures depicted in Colin Quashie’s marvelous mural strike close to home for me. George Henry White (panel 1), Abraham Galloway (panel 1), and Charles Chestnutt (panel 5) are all central figures in Democracy Betrayed: the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy, a UNC Press anthology that Tim Tyson and I edited to commemorate the race riot’s centennial. Civil rights leader Golden Frinks (panel 5) is also a pivotal player in my first book published with UNC Press, Along Freedom Road: Hyde County, North Carolina, and the Fate of Black Schools in the South. You’ll find a little about Reginald Hawkins (panel 4), the pioneering health care activist, there, too.

Menhaden Fishing Fleet and Chanteymen

Likewise, David Walker (panel 1), Harriet Jacobs (panel 7), and, again, Abraham Galloway, are all important figures in my most recent book with UNC Press, The Waterman’s Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina. Only a few years ago, none of those African-American leaders appeared in our state’s history books, museums, or historical markers. Today, thanks in large part to UNC Press’s devotion to publishing African-American history, they’re increasingly understood to be at the heart of North Carolina’s past.

As I look at the mural’s third panel today, I’m especially excited to see the Beaufort menhaden fishing fleet and chanteymen. I grew up near Beaufort and many of my neighbors were menhaden fishermen. They were part of the rich African-American maritime heritage that I chronicled in The Waterman’s Song.

The menhaden fishermen mostly stopped singing their legendary chanteys with the introduction of power blocks and hardening rigs in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. However, those songs have remained a powerful memory for all who ever heard them.

As a child, the first thing I ever heard about the menhaden industry was my mother’s stories about those chanteys. She grew up on a small farm near Beaufort, and the menhaden fishermen used to drive ox carts down the dirt road in front of her house on their way to Beaufort. Early Monday mornings, long before first light, she would wake up in her bed at the sound of their beautiful, haunting songs and listen to them as the fishermen moved through the darkness and toward the sea.

The last menhaden factory in North Carolina closed 5 years ago, but I recently had the chance to listen to oral history interviews with some of the state’s last African-American menhaden fishermen. They were interviewed by my friend and colleague, an extremely talented folklorist named Barbara Garrity-Blake, as part of a community project commemorating the local menhaden industry’s history.

In those interviews, the menhaden fishermen talked about the chanteys in much the same way as my mother. It “just seemed like music was all over the ocean,” a veteran first mate named “King” Davis told her. They mostly sang “in the net,” but sometimes, Mr. Davis said, they’d sing all night long just to keep their minds off the cold and hurt.

Those songs have not been heard on a menhaden boat in a long time, but older people around Beaufort still remember them. On cool autumn days, they say, you could stand on shore and sometimes hear the chanteys coming across the water. They filled the air and stirred the heart and got deep inside your bones. And if you heard those songs, like my mother did when she was a little girl, you never forgot them or the way that they made you feel.

It’s hard to put into words, but it was not just the beauty of their melodies or the men’s fine voices, either. At times, the songs appeared to rise right out of the sea. And beyond their gospel strains or sassy, sometimes bawdy lyrics (they sang both kinds of chanteys), you could hear the men’s sense of brotherhood, their reverence and fear for the storms that nearly took their lives, their pride in their work, and the pain caused by cold ropes that cut their hands to the bone.

You could hear, too, the joy that they found in the sea and its wonders, or, as Bobby Chambers, a menhaden fisherman from Morehead City, put it, in “the beautiful stuff…on the water that God had created.”

David S. Cecelski is an independent scholar living in Durham, North Carolina.