American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

GREAT LAKES CHANTEYS. Commercial sailing on the Great Lakes made its short-lived beginning with the launching of the Griffon, built near Niagara Falls in 1679 by Rene Robert Cavelier, de la Salle, known to history as La Salle, for fur trade to the Upper Lakes. The ship made its first voyage that year, wintering at Green Bay, Wisconsin, and vanished the next year on its return voyage loaded with furs, thus giving rise to numerous myths and legends. However, the Battle of Lake Erie on 10 September 1813, a major American victory over the British, opened up that part of the Northwest Territory, including the northern part of Ohio, a state since 1803, and what were to become Indiana (1816), Illinois (1818), Michigan (1837), and Wisconsin (1848) to settlement, both by Americans and by new immigrants from Northern Europe.

The result was an active sailing packet service, especially after the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 permitted passage by water from the East Coast to increasing numbers of Great Lakes destinations. The discovery of iron ore and copper in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in 1844 contributed to the accelerated construction of hundreds of a relatively standard three-masted schooner for both passenger and commercial trade. That construction was further accelerated by the growing lumber industry in Michigan and, later, Wisconsin.

Although steam came to the Lakes as early as 1818, when the Walk-in- the-Water was launched near Buffalo, commercial traffic was dominated by the schooners until near the end of the nineteenth century. With the decline of the lumber trade and the emergence of the modern Lakes-style bulk carrier, commercial sailing went into an irreversible decline. It ended in the fall of 1930, when the last commercial schooner, Our Son, a pulpwood carrier built in Lorain, Ohio, in the 1870s, was wrecked on the Michigan shore of Lake Michigan.

During the three-quarters of a century when schooner traffic dominated the Lakes, a chanteying tradition emerged. Strongly influenced by the saltwater tradition and undoubtedly brought to the Lakes by saltwater sailors, Great Lakes chanteys quickly took on characteristics unique to the circumstances of Great Lakes sailing. As was true of sea chanteys during the nineteenth century, Great Lakes chanteys were work songs. Like their saltwater counterparts, the verses of Great Lakes chanteys were generally of anonymous, perhaps collective evolutionary authorship, with the chanteyman (often but not always a petty officer) singing the verses, often to traditional tunes, and the rest of the men singing the alternating chorus. The combination provided the spirit as well as the rhythms by which lines were hauled, capstans turned, and windlasses and pumps worked, as demanded not only by the operation of the ship but by the peculiar geography of the Lakes themselves.

The geography of the Lakes is defined by the five individual lakes—Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario—joined by narrow connecting bodies of water of varying lengths with a variety of hazards. Lake voyages are traditionally short, marked by a limited sailing season, and further restricted by a limited number of points of departure and destination. Storms on the Great Lakes, particularly at the end of the shipping season, can be intense. All of these elements found their way into the verses and choruses of Great Lakes chanteys.

One typical chantey tells the story of a long haul up-lake from Buffalo to Chicago. First the schooner gets under way as the chanteyman sings: “When the mate calls up all hands/ To man the capstan, walk ’er round,/ We’ll heave ’er up lads with a will,/ For we are homeward bound.” Then the crew at the capstan takes up the chorus, an echo of the saltwater version, which replaces “Chicago” with “New England” in the penultimate line: “Rolling home, rolling home,/ Rolling home across the sea,/ Rolling home to old Chicago, Rolling home, old town, to thee!” Clearing Buffalo harbor, the schooner tacks up-lake across Lake Erie against the wind. Then, entering the Detroit River for transit via Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River to Lake Huron, it is taken in tow by a steam tug, as many schooners were in the last years of sailing on the Lakes. Then, after another chorus, the schooner is again under sail. Through the straits and down the long length of Lake Michigan, chorus and verse are strong: “Soon, my boys, the trip is done,/ And there is no more to say,/ We’ll go down to old Black Pete’s,/ And spend our whole damned pay.”

In another chantey, the chanteyman takes a three-masted schooner up- lake as he recounts the shortcomings of the captain, the mate, the food, and the weather, finally concluding as the ship turns back down the Lakes: “And now we’re bound down the Lakes, let ’er roar,/ Hurrah, boys, heave ’er down!/ And on this old scow we’ll never ship more,/ Way down, laddies, down!”

Chanteymen on Lakes schooners, like their counterparts at sea, were valuable crewmen, providing leadership and spirit as they sang from their repertoire and improvised freely on subjects ranging from the weather and the food, to the virtues or lack of virtues of young ladies in port towns from Buffalo, New York, to Duluth, Minnesota. A unique feature of Great Lakes chanteying was the fact that the chanteys were often heard ashore, not only as the schooners entered or cleared port but also as the sailors made or took in sail in the narrow waterways between the Lakes. Often, too, at night, schooners were warned of others nearby by the sound of chanteys echoing over the water.

The decline in sailing and the subsequent decline in chanteying were rapid after 1890. Not only did donkey engines increasingly power capstans and raise sails, but many schooners were converted to barges, ending their days ignominiously in tow by steam tugs. The great storms, especially that of 8 November 1913, took a heavy toll, and many Lakes schooners were pressed into the Atlantic coastal trade during World War I. By 1930, with the wreck of Our Son, commercial sailing and chanteys passed from the Lakes. [See also CLEMENS, SAMUEL LANGHORNE; GREAT LAKES BALLADS; GREAT LAKES MYTHS AND LEGENDS; SEA MUSIC]

FURTHER READING: Few chanteys or studies of chanteys have found their way into print. See David D. Anderson, “Songs and Sayings of the Lakes,” Midwest Folklore 12 (Spring 1962): 5-16. Chanteying remains an oral tradition, passed onto me by my grandfather, William E. Foster (1869-1951), who sailed the Lakes as a young man. The oral tradition is best preserved today by Lee Murdock, whose recordings of chanteys and ballads of the Lakes include “Songs of the Sweetwater Seas,” “Voices across the Water,” “Cold Winds,” “Safe in the Harbor,” and others, available from Depot Recordings, Kaneville, IL 60144-0011. The Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan houses the best collection of sources of chanteys.

David D. Anderson