Salty Singalongs

Nathan Rose belts out a lusty tune on a recent Sea Chantey Night at Galway Bay restaurant and pub in Annapolis.
Nathan Rose belts out a lusty tune on a recent Sea Chantey Night at Galway Bay restaurant and pub in Annapolis. (Photo Illustration By The Washington Post; Photo By Dennis Drenner For The Washington Post)
By Sarah Schmelling
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 12, 2007

The facial hair is what gives them away. Sitting around the tartan-draped dining room of the Royal Mile Pub, a Scottish outpost in Wheaton, the men in the crowd sport double-take-worthy sideburns and goatees, whiskers that arch over mouths and curl up toward eyes, substantial beards and the occasional elegant mustache.

It's a personal-grooming phenomenon that occurs at the bar on the first Tuesday of the month, Sea Chantey Night, when maritime historians, Civil War reenactors, Renaissance fair regulars and those who would just love to put "pirate" on their résumés come together to sing about living on the sea.

When the hostess seats Darriel Day, 25, of Wheaton (goatee, long ponytail, carrying a large Celtic drum) and a friend at a small table between a fireplace and a woman with a "got mead?" T-shirt, Day smiles contentedly. Like almost everyone nearby, he opens a chantey songbook. His was custom-made by his father; most others are ever-evolving "hymnals" that are put together by regular Vince Wilding (Civil War-esque facial hair that covers everything but his chin).

It is just minutes before the chanteys (SHAN-tees) commence. All seats are filled. No one in this crowd of about 100 will be leaving for two hours except, perhaps, for the soon-to-be startled few who have shown up not realizing what's about to happen.

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When the ship's whistle blows at 8 p.m., all talking stops. Patrons flip pages and huddle together while scarfing last bites of Beef and Guinness Pie or Maryland Fried Chicken, washed down with swigs of Smithwick's or Black Douglas Ale. For those in need of true liquid courage, the menu features dozens of Scotch whiskys. The crowd hushed, Myron Peterson (he of the expansive mutton chops), stands and belts out a song:

It was Friday morn when we set sail

And we were not far from the land

When our Captain he spied a mermaid so fair

With a comb and a glass in her hand

At the chorus, the crowd joins him, harmonizing with voices of all range and pitch. "It's all about inclusion," Peterson, 50, of Severn, says later. A member of the Chanteymen, a group that organizes weekly "chantey sings" at area bars and coffeehouses, Peterson doesn't much worry about pitch and harmony: "Volume and clarity are more important than tonal beauty."

Though the song, "The Mermaid," is a dire one -- according to folklore, a mermaid sighting meant a ship's quick detour to the ocean's bottom -- the tune, like most chanteys, is lively and addictive. "You want to get everybody feeling good," Peterson says.

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