Maryland Folk Musician Tom Wisner Chronicles Story of the Chesapeake Bay in Song

Tom Wisner, a renowned folk singer known as the Bard of Chesapeake Bay, is 78 years old and ailing. Although he can no longer perform, he recently recorded a song with some schoolchildren, and a group of Marylanders is hoping to get his work enshrined in state law.
By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 4, 2009

Tom Wisner's voice is gently commanding. Subtly passionate. Strong and deep.

I'm made of water.

Flo-oowing water.

Sun and salt.

Winds that blow.

He no longer performs for large crowds, just occasional visitors eager to learn what they can from the 78-year-old folk-singing environmentalist before the tumor in his lungs claims his life. His trademark white beard disappeared after chemotherapy. The treatment made his fingers so sensitive that he no longer plays guitar.

For decades, Wisner has been known as the Bard of the Chesapeake Bay: a folk singer, artist, poet, historian and educator whose music celebrates the rivers and bay. The Smithsonian Institution has recorded Wisner's work, and he was the recipient of the World Folk Music Association's 2002 John Denver Award. To many ears, his voice is that of the bay itself.

Now, ailing and alone in his rented farmhouse in Southern Maryland, Wisner finds himself reflecting on the consequences of dedicating his life to the bay: the collapse of his marriage, distance from his children, near poverty. "My work became my life," he said. "It became my family."

To honor Wisner's work, lawmakers recently proposed that one of his songs be designated the state's first official children's song. But too many "state designation bills" were introduced this year -- to name a state walking stick, to designate Hoye Crest on Backbone Mountain as the highest point in Maryland -- and the House version of the song bill died in committee this week.

"It's really, really tough to get these types of bills through, because you are permanently changing Maryland history," said Del. Sue Kullen, who introduced the House bill.

Wisner grew up an Army brat. He spent most of his life in the District and attended Anacostia High School, where he was kicked out of the choir. His parents divorced when he was 12; his mother raised him afterward, teaching him to appreciate nature and music. The two would stand outside African American churches on Sundays and listen to the hymns, and during the summer they would travel to rural Virginia, where she grew up, to visit the James River.

After graduating from high school, Wisner fought in Korea and then took a job as an educator at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons. He began recording the oral history of the region, taping interviews with old watermen and documenting the tunes oyster shuckers sang as they worked.

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