The Playlist of a Modern Sailor
INTRO about Miami:
I have a friend who is from Miami, Tim. He is clever, thoughtful and compassionate, looks like a Spanish Conquistador, has a guffawing laugh, is extremely capable, really likes sugary foods, is reading a scholarly book called Medieval Mysogyny. His mother is Cuban, his father very white and in seersucker shorts, and his grandfather “Gramboo” is old, demented, and cycles through old Navy stories on a regular schedule. For the past 4 months, Tim and I lived, traveled, skinny-dipped, hiked, slept in ditches, sailed, and puked together. For nearly the entire time, we had no music with us to signify or qualify any of those experiences, nothing that would fix memories as belonging to the emotional resonance of a certain song or collection of songs. All that we had were the printed lyrics to chanteys, whatever our chief mate whittled with his guitar, and whatever we could borrow from the soundtracks of other memories. This is a sample of the odd collection of songs that we prompted each other’s recollections to spit up, and some explanations of what they represent about living at sea.
Composed by Wynton Marsalis
Played by the Wynton Marsalis Septet
This song is played at the end of every episode of, I think, Monday Drive-Time Jazz on 89.3 WPFW (a DC station), the time of day I used to drive home from softball practice everyday in high school. So, weekly I heard this song, loved it, and didn’t know anything about it. Then the last time I was home I heard it again, still at the end of this same radio show. Frantically I called in, the DJ told me what it was, and it was the glorious answer to a 4 year question.
That happened the day before I set sail, and I carried that joy of “finally!” onto the ship. The song came to mind a lot when I stood at the helm, where I could only sing quietly so as not to wake the captain, whose quarters were nearby. Also, it was much safer to sing a song that had to be recited from memory, because one that tempted you to improvise would distract you from steering a course (not at all like steering a car) and keeping a lookout.
“Sodom, South Georgia”
Iron and Wine
This is a song that I have heard a lot, but I never really zeroed in on it until working in shipyard in Key West. It played through the crackly speakers of a very old analog radio via an Ipod, a peculiar item to behold on an 18th-century brigantine schooner. I listened sitting on the dock without a shirt, taking blocks (pulleys) apart and using osphoric acid and a wirebrush to rust-bust their innards. The song was about as quiet and simple as my work, and walked along at the same dallying pace. The slowness of the song seemed like a meaningful juxtaposition with the cutthroat pace of being underway. You can only listen to the most energizing music underway, to key up for whatever your speedy task might be. The fact that I was able to listen to this one signified and enhanced a welcomed period of rest.
“Closer to the Sun”
This band was kind of big sometime in...the late 90s? I think I saw them play at HFStival in DC, but thought they were dumb because of their name, and because they just played a lot of simple stoner-ska. But then—!
Every Saturday afternoon instead of having Ship's Meeting, we had Field Day (supercommando of the whole ship), and my watch (A Watch: Emergency Response Team!...in a fire, it was my job to wield the fire-axe. That just means that in a lot of drills, especially ones in the dark where I had been pulled out of bed, I wandered around half naked with my shorts inside out, trying to hold my fire-axe in one hand so that none of the sail-handling and support teams running around would encounter it, while also trying to figure out how I could help the effort without the use of one hand, and without setting the axe down for somebody to step on in a roll. During these situations, I always listened to “The Immigrant Song” in my head.)
—during Field Day, my watch cleaned the galley, a room about 4x5x7 feet, and you fit 7 people in there. We had to stack people vertically because there wasn’t enough space on the sole [floor], because all our butts got big from eating white flour and sugar almost exclusively. There were people standing on milk crates that slid back and forth in unpredictable trajectories as the ship rolled, and everyone who was crouched with their faces crowded very close to their disgusting work, scraping wet bleach-soaked crumbs from underneath and behind dark corners—the crouchers quickly and periodically hopped out of the way, sliding reciprocally around the crate-sliders and shouldering their knees so they didn’t fall. The whole room's people rearranged every few seconds like a Rubik’s cube twisting, like my wringing stomach, everyone having constant touch-and-go contact on all their bodily surfaces, everyone working their hands as fast as they could wherever they were because they would soon slide to a new place with almost assembly-line timing, because the waves come at regular intervals: [scrub-scrub-slide] [scrub-scrub-slide]. It’s like the supercommando you can envision on land, but like dice in a yahtzee tumbler.
The point is that Field Day is the only time you get to listen to music while underway without making it yourself (it’s a safety hazard to not be able to hear any potential malfunction with the ship). One girl on my watch, who had been my drunken-mess-roommate on shore, always put on this song while I was scrubbing mung off of the stove, twisting and leaning and bending around people who were working between my arms, under my legs, in front of my face. And I was surprised to hear that this band has actual musical talent. Having good music while we cleaned made it a fabulous party, enough even to distract me from my heaving stomach. Finally and most importantly, Field Day restocked my quickly-exhausted catalogue of songs to sing on bow watch.
The most fun songs to recall are the ones that let you depart from their recording and sing your own way. This song, since it’s a pretty simple chord progression and really easy to harmonize with, and the main guitar phrases are easy to sing (which is important when you have a terrible memory for lyrics…I mostly ended up howling long vowels in lieu of words), serves the purpose beautifully when you are alone on bow watch and want something to belt out unreservedly. That means performing for the huge space in front of you that your ship is eating up as you move forward, and the flashing bioluminescents in your bow-wake, and if there’s a small moon, the 89000 TRILLION STARS and all the lightyears of space. But the most important part thing is that the only human presence is yourself. You bang on the caprail and then you have a rhythm section, and then you remember some instant when your friends danced wildly, so that you have a whole energetic ensemble that fits inside your head and inflames the great blackness of your audience, whose roaring approval manifests as waves slapping the side of the hull, and you are dislodged from the bowsprit so that you stagger and lurch, flinging your whole body into your bellowing.
I, of course, am only the most recent of a long lineage of sailors who likely give secret and private bow-watch performances to the intimate vastnesses of sky and sea. Though it seems odd to consider Jimi Hendrix as part of the same heritage as an old Irish Chantey, there is no question that as you are rocking there in your grand performance, there is a sense of tradition. How could anyone addressed by the rasping wind, as centuries of sailors have been before, keep from singing back at it? Any song that shares these qualities (simple, easy to harmonize, easy to improvise, extend, loop, splice) will tend to rise to that ancient and venerated objective of Bow-Watch Ballads. This leads to,
Yorke’s melancholy vowel-howling (like Radiohead from concentrate) fits well with my own habits. Again, an easy, simple song to harmonize and improvise. It also came up during Field Day, where I had my drunky-roommate (who used her beautiful singing as a life stabilizer) as company, and we sang some awesome 3 part harmonies.
“Maybe I’ll Come Down”
Again, same principles as the two preceding songs. Also, this song talks about maybe meeting up with someone in the distant future, which is a more or less constant theme of daydreaming at sea. In some cases, when you have no idea where in the ocean you are, and your imagination is just as real as any passing second, singing this song while you imagine the reunion faces of people you love is, in a way, fulfilling the title’s half-promise.