Women and the sea

Exploring women’s roles in maritime songs.

Debra Cowan sings sea shanties at the Oak Bluffs Library. —Teresa Kruszewski

Last Saturday, the Oak Bluffs library hosted “Women and the Sea,” a presentation about songs and ballads of women and the sea. Debra Cowan is a singer and performer who bridges old and new. The songs she explored in this program covered a broad range of maritime history, with stories of supernatural revenge on faithless lovers, daring rescues, and stomach-churning cannery accidents. She opened with a version of the traditional song “The Maid on the Shore,” collected by Helen Creighton in Nova Scotia, a reworking of the siren myth in which a young woman gets her revenge on a captain and his crew, followed by another a capella song, “Bay of Biscay-O.”

Debra began touring in 1998. “I’ve really wanted to sing for people ever since I can remember, and the less I did of it, the grumpier I got,” she says. So she started taking voice lessons and soon left her job as a middle school math teacher. She focuses on traditional and folk music but also ranges into other genres. For programs like this, she seeks out obscure songs with a compelling tune, a good story, and lyrics that “paint a wonderful picture.” Some of these older songs first appeared as broadsides while others were collected from the oral tradition, often in many versions.

“What’s really great about traditional songs is that you can mix and match,” she says. Sometimes she’ll rearrange a song to create a chorus so that the audience can sing along, because “folk music is not a spectator sport,” or she’ll add a verse from one version of a song to a different version to make the story more complete. For many traditional ballads, she sings unaccompanied because the story is the most central part of the song and because it’s how the piece would have been performed originally. For other songs, she picks up her unusual folding guitar. “Some songs just work with some kind of accompaniment,” she says. “You can totally change the song when you add the guitar.”

Many of the later songs came from known composers and verifiable historical events from the 1800s through the 20th century. She sang “The Nantucket Girls Song,” from a journal by Eliza Brock, a Nantucket woman who gathered with other captains’ wives to share poetry while their husbands were away at sea in the 1850s. From the modern era, she sang “Lament for the Hull Trawlers,” by Frankie Armstrong and Ewan MacColl, which tells the story of the Triple Trawler Disaster in 1968. Fifty-eight men died, but eventually that tragedy led to improvements in communication and safety regulations for the fishing boats.

The second half of the program included stories of women taking on men’s roles, sometimes in disguise. Ida Lewis took over her father’s role as a lighthouse keeper in Newport, and in her 54 years at the lighthouse, she saved many lives. Further afield, a woman named Isobel Gunn sailed from the Orkney Islands and passed herself off as John Fubbister to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company in western Canada. Debra concluded the program with some humorous songs by present-day women who worked in the fishing industry in the Pacific Northwest.

Debra is currently working on a program of labor songs. She’s been an active member of the American Federation of Musicians Local 1000 and says that activism is in her blood; her great-grandfather and her grandfather were both union organizers.

She’ll also be singing at the Woods Hole Community Hall on Jan. 14 with John Roberts, an English folklorist and musician who has influenced generations of traditional folk enthusiasts. He introduced American audiences to traditional British songs, especially songs related to the winter solstice. For those who are interested in learning more about local music from the Vineyard, she recommends Gale Huntington’s books and recordings from the 1950s and ’60s.

“Women and the Sea” was the final scheduled event in a month-long series of maritime programs at the library in memory of Gordon Goodwin, who died in 2001. “Gordon Goodwin was an avid fisherman and had a strong relationship with both the library and the sea,” writes Allyson Malik, library director. “After he died, his family made a donation to the library in his honor.” Mr. Goodwin was a longtime resident of Oak Bluffs who worked on issues ranging from preservation of the East Chop Bluffs to maintaining the role of the Oak Bluffs fishing fleet. One final program in the series, Nat Benjamin’s talk about his sail to Haiti, will be rescheduled for later this month.