Won't You Help Me Raise Em Boys! (from Window on the Chesapeake)
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“This is my father’s world.” The simple, gentle notes of the hymn rise over the crowd of a few hundred, who take up the words and carry them forward. “I rest in me the thought/Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas/His hand the wonders wrought.” The voices rise into a robin’s egg sky and float on the breeze across Cockrell Creek, where dozens of boats wait quietly for the words and prayers that will bless the fleet of menhaden ships from Reedville, Virginia, set to begin their season of fishing tomorrow, as they have for generations. These voices have a sweetness to them, a vulnerability, for they belong to those who stay behind, waiting. Not so, the songs of those who went to sea.

Cover from Window on the Chesapeake
This story is an excerpt from Window on the Chesapeake by Wendy Mitman Clarke. To order this book, visit the Mariner's Museum.
“Won’t you help me raise ’em boys!” The voice of Calvin Hill, so soft and shy around strangers, rings like a gong over the silenced crowd, roaring with a kind of breathless urgency. “Hey, hey,” comes the long, drawn-out response of the three men flanking him. “Won’t you help me raise ’em boys!” Hill calls again, and the men sing together, “See you when the sun goes down,” pulling the last word into a long, groaning syllable. These are members of the Northern Neck Chantey Singers, former fishermen who sing the work songs born on the Chesapeake Bay’s menhaden boats to help strong men do the back-breaking work of hauling in nets loaded with hundreds of thousands of writhing fish. The four men are in their sixties and seventies; some of them move as if the weight of the loaded nets still pulls them down. But their voices are rich, as deep as an ocean and moving with the relentless power of an ebb tide on a full spring moon. They are probably the last men who will know these songs and this rhythm. So they keep singing.

The songs were structured as call-and-response, with the leader pitching out a line and the men answering together as they pulled. William Hudnall, who organized the Northern Neck Chantey Singers in 1991, says chanteys were called when it seemed no one could pull harder and the net wasn’t moving. “Somebody hit that chantey, and started to get into it,” he says on “See You When the Sun Goes Down.” “After awhile you see, here it starts coming up. Inch by inch. Inch by inch . . . You hadn’t killed them and they hadn’t killed you. But it was fifty-fifty—you were nearly dead and so were they.” Frye quotes Reedville Captain John B. Lowry who recorded some of the songs as the men worked. “When they got together good,” Lowry said, “they pulled about everything on earth.”

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