The older Stephen Sanfilippo gets, the more he becomes an unaccompanied ballad singer. And before he performs them, he tells the audience not to look at him.
Instead, he instructs them to close their eyes, and transport themselves to another time and place — circa-1840s Sag Harbor, aboard a whale ship, two weeks into a hard voyage with nothing but traditional work songs to lift their spirits and give them hope as they sail the high, raging seas.
Hear the sounds of the waves lapping the side of the boat, he says. Listen to the wind fluttering the sail and vibrate the lines, the iron fittings clanging. Feel the physical hardships and the spiritual turmoil.
And, only then, consider what these songs are truly saying — ballads he will perform during “Prayer’s from the Fish’s Belly” on Friday at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor.
“They would write these down in their off-watch hours,” Sanfilippo said. “They’re down in that horribly smelly, overcrowded, dank fo’c’sle writing these down. You can imagine, you just worked under these miserable conditions and you’re still on the ship. It’s still rocking, and you’re sitting there handwriting a five-page poem or song.”
He sighed. “But nothing was just a song,” he continued. “If you look at the true chantey, it’s a work song. They had particular rhythms and tempos for specific jobs of heaving or hauling on ship with two or more men, or women, working as a cohesive unit. It’s growing out of the work experience, and at the same time, it’s expressing feelings.”
They were prayers of sorts — some literal, while others were more figurative — all penned in journals that Sanfilippo, a retired professor of maritime history who splits his time between Southold and Maine, first discovered while writing his dissertation, “Whalemen’s Song: Lyrics and Masculinity in the Sag Harbor Whalefishery, 1840-1850.”
“I just love these songs from the 1700s and mid-1800s that are 15 verses long — even though I can’t remember most of ’em all the way through anymore, so I have to look at the words sometimes,” he said, noting his upcoming 70thbirthday. “And I play banjo and guitar at concertina, but I’m starting to get arthritic, so I rely more on my singing. And I don’t try to sound like an opera singer. I don’t try to sound like a pop singer. I just try to sound the way it comes out, which at any given time might be good or bad.”
That is exactly what the sailors would do themselves, he explained. It was never a singing contest, or felt like karaoke, he said. These were the songs that would get them through the workday, hymns that helped them grapple with loss, and prayers that may have sounded like ballads about nighttime celestial navigation, but were really about navigating a spiritual journey.
“Part of it is to entertain, part of it has a function of work, part of it is self-expression, and part of it is camaraderie. Sometimes, it was a coping mechanism,” Sanfilippo said of the songs. “The necessity of it was their entertainment. A ship that had a good unaccompanied ballad singer or a really good fiddler, he was a treasure to them. Most everybody sang. It’s just such a rich heritage and song culture.”
Stephen Sanfilippo will perform “Prayers From the Fish’s Belly” on Friday, May 4, at 6 p.m. at Canio’s Books, located at 290 Main Street in Sag Harbor. For more information, please call (631) 725-4926.