Gale Huntington Preserves Songs of Whaling Era

By MARK ALAN LOVEWELL

E. Gale Huntington, the late Vineyard fisherman, farmer, school teacher and historian, is regarded as an icon in many circles, especially among folk musicians and those who are interested in maritime lore.

Though he died in 1993, Mr. Huntington's collection of sea chanteys - the 328-page Songs the Whalemen Sang - remains a landmark work, preserving the melodies of a bygone era and also giving insight into the lives of the whalemen of the 1700s and 1800s. It was first published in 1964, and has been out of print for years.

Now Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, the premiere East Coast maritime museum, has republished the book with the blessing of the author's daughter, Emily Huntington Rose.

Mr. Huntington's contribution to the history and music of this region is as significant as Alan Lomax's collection of American Ballads and Folk Songs, which has been republished many times.

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In the whaling era, thousands of ships traveled the seas, principally hailing from New Bedford, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. The songs of that time are as valuable to understanding the region's maritime heritage as the old white clapboard homes of the whaling captains that stand on North Water street in Edgartown, or the scrimshaw that resides on museum shelves. They were borne of a life spent at sea; the men were often away from home for years at a time. To fill their day they told stories and sang songs.

Mr. Huntington wrote: "Music . . . was one of the very few real pleasures that the whalemen had. Often the food was very bad, sometimes the officers were cruel and brutal, and always the work was dangerous and hard. Add to that the fact that home and everything that home stood for might be thousands of miles, and years away, too, and you will see why most of the whalemen sang, and why some few of them recorded the songs that they sang and loved."

Many of the songs were work songs, used to bring the crew together to haul, pull or push something too big to manage without coordinated effort. Songs were used to bring up the anchor or to raise sail.

The new edition of Songs the Whalemen Sang includes an introduction by Rick Spencer, a chanteyman and member of the music staff of Mystic Seaport. In it, Mr. Spencer explains how Mr. Huntington's interest in sea chanteys was peaked. It begins:

"You hold in your hands the fruits of the labor of many other hands, as well as a marvelously interesting story. It begins, as many stories do, in the middle. The year was 1954. The place was Tisbury High School in the town of Vineyard Haven on the Island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. One of the teachers was in the habit of including local history in his lessons, and his students had taken an interest in the whaling heritage of the Island. A young woman in the class mentioned that her father had found the logbook of a whaleman in the local dump, and she offered to bring it to class.

"The teacher was Gale Huntington. The student was Joany Merry. The whaleman was Sam Mingo."

The introduction continues:

"Sam Mingo had begun his journal in 1879. . . . Sam was a Native-American from the Vineyard, and he had signed on the bark Andrew Hicks as the fourth mate for a two-year voyage in the Atlantic. He liked music, and in addition to his personal observations Sam included in his journal the lyrics to some of his favorite songs. Gale Huntington found the journal interesting, but he found the songs fascinating."

In the ensuing years Mr. Huntington gathered sea chanteys from whalemen's journals and log books, going through the collections of all the region's important maritime museums and libraries. In total, Mr. Huntington assembled 175 songs.

Some of the songs hit close to home. One, from the 1859 log of the whaling ship Ocean Rover, begins: "I will sing a little rhyme as I have a little time, about the meanest ship afloat in creation. Her name it is the Mitchell, from Edgartown did sail. And they fitted her out to go to Desolation."

The song refers to Desolation Island, an island near the Antarctic.

There are familiar folksongs within the book, such as The Lily of the West and The Pride of Kildare, considered popular standards among those who love Celtic music today. Mr. Huntington wrote that sailors of the world sang a lot of songs that were popular for the day; there is even a chapter called Parlor Songs That Went to Sea.

The new publishers have added an index which lists all the songs alphabetically by name, an improvement for the singer who is searching for a favorite.

And still: the story of Mr. Huntington's life and work is not finished. Years before she died, his wife Mildred Huntington gave a copy of an unpublished manuscript called The Gam to sea chantey singer Geoff Kaufman of New London, Conn. As a result of Mr. Kaufman's advocacy, Mystic Seaport now has promised to publish the book, considered a significant sequel to Songs the Whalemen Sang.

The value of books like these does not diminish with age - they increase. All of the works of Mr. Huntington, and those like him, give flesh and life to this community's forebears. The more this Island changes with the times, the more people ask about who was here before.

Vineyard sailors from these wooden ships traveled the world. They traveled to Hawaii, Alaska and New Zealand and everywhere in between. In the mid-1800s, the Vineyard was connected to the rest of the world more than most communities of the day. That story can be retold for generations to come.