Letters From Sea 1864-1867: A Collaboration With My Great-Great Grandfather
Telling stories and preserving history through song is a tradition that exists all over the world. I’ve long been drawn to the old ballads of America and Europe—particularly songs of the sea. If I had been a sea-faring man like my ancestors, I like to think I’d have been a chantey-man. I recently wrote a couple historical sea ballads for the record I just released with my band, the Waxwings. Usually I would much rather someone listen to a song of mine than listen to me talk about it, but in this case it’s a toss up: please do listen, but read on if you’d like to know more about where the songs came from.
Part I: Letters from Sea, 1864-1867
Oh what foolish mortals we are—so glad to get in port and so glad to get out again
-C. O. Carter
It’s been at least a century since anyone in my family has been involved in the business of ships. But the specter of my sea-faring ancestors looms large even today—especially that of Captain Christopher Otis Carter, who called Bath, ME, his home and who sailed around the world many times. He was my father’s mother’s father’s father—my great-great grandfather.
I’d always wanted to somehow connect to that sea-faring life of the past through song. I love researching and singing old chanteys—particularly the ballads. I wanted to write one of my own, but I wanted it to be an honest song—not some ironic yo-ho-ho phoniness. But not ever having been to sea myself (at least not in the literal sense), I needed help. So I asked Captain Carter.
He set off on his first voyage as captain in 1864 on the ship Whampoa. During three long years at sea he kept a journal of letters to his wife, Margaret, who was back home in Maine with their children. I read through this journal and tried to pull out a story that I could tell. Though the letters were rich with dramatic scenes of shipboard life and wistful thoughts of home, I struggled to find a way to tell his story in my own words that felt true. So I decided not to. Instead, I would write the music and let him be the lyricist. The lines of “Letters From Sea 1864-1867” are pulled verbatim from Carter’s journal. In some cases I distorted the chronology (pairing lines from different letters) but the words are entirely his. The first draft had about twice as many verses but it was way too cumbersome, so reluctantly, I threw a bunch overboard—including a great scene at anchor off Lima Peru where a Spanish frigate catches fire and burns to waters edge causing her guns and ammunition to explode loudly, waking Carter from his slumber 6 miles away. But the verses that remain paint a vivid picture of a man caught between the irresistible call of the sea and the insufferable longing for home.
Perhaps it is something about this essential dichotomy that compels so many artists to draw inspiration from the sea. It seems that although the reality of that life is distant and mysterious there is something essential in the metaphor that ships and oceans provide. Songs (not to mention other art forms) across genres and periods are full of images of sea and shore, stormy seas, safe harbors, ships coming in, going out, running aground or passing in the night. This universal resonance is in part why I think I still feel a connection to the dangerous and beautiful life of my ancestors and to songs of the sea.
The other thing driving me is the nature of roots music itself: modern day musicians looking for a connection to our collective musical past, making meaning in the contemporary world through the essential time-tested truths of the past. And it’s deeper than just “hey, check it out, I play the mandolin now.” The musical past of course mirrors a human and historical past that we invoke in varying degrees of directness. For me, in writing this song, I wanted to be really direct and connect not only to musical and historical roots but to familial roots as well.
But “Age and Wonder” is not an album full of sea chanteys. We have a bunch of different songwriters in the band and I like to write about other stuff too. But to me the process of writing these songs was the most interesting and perhaps the most successful. I can only hope that Captain Carter would be pleased with the results of our collaboration.