Have you ever wondered what it was like to be a 19th-century
sailor, stevedore, or any other kind of maritime worker? If so, you’re in
luck. Pomona College is now offering a Sea
Chanty & Maritime Music Ensemble
The course is taught by visiting assistant professor of music
Gibb ‘Ranzo’ Schreffler,
who is an expert on sea chanties. Schreffler grew up in Connecticut near local institutions of maritime
heritage like the Mystic Seaport Museum,
which first sparked his interest. Though Schreffler
sang chanties informally with friends throughout college, it was not until he was a graduate student of ethnomusicology that he decided to pursue
the study of chanties.
Schreffler has learned, by memory, well over 500
chanties by now. He has also done comprehensive historical research on the development of the chanty genre, using
He has given presentations on the topic in the United Kingdom, New Orleans, and locally. In addition to teaching at Pomona, he is also working on a book.
According to Schreffler, sea chanties must have a regular
chorus that is simple and easy to remember. The choruses alternate with solos sung
by a leader, or chantyman, who is
charged with inspiring his or her co-workers.
“Working chantymen were appreciated for both their
strong voices and their quick wits,” Schreffler wrote in an e-mail to TSL. “Any
given performance was largely the
creation of the chantyman in the moment, so
what made it a great chanty depended more on the performance rather than formal musical-textual characteristics of a
This semester is Schreffler’s first time teaching chanties to
college students and he, along with the 14 students enrolled, is enthusiastic
about it. Like the people who created this genre
and sang it as part of their everyday
lives, students do not have to be previously trained in any formal sense.
“Singing ‘ability’ was never in question—one just sang!
Chanty-singing emphasizes aspects that are different than singing art music,”
Schreffler wrote. “Enthusiasm, rhythm, and
lyrics—perhaps in that order—are more
important than pitch precision or voice quality. One aspect of the appeal of singing chanties in the modern
era is the inclusive atmosphere of this
I had the chance to sit in on the class to observe as
Schreffler led his students through rehearsal for their upcoming final concert.
Schreffler sang instructions to the class as
they smiled and laughed together and
worked through different exercises: circling around, playing various instruments (including the concertina
and the harmonica), using pipes from Schreffler’s large collection as props, and
pulling a rope, all in rhythm to the several chanties that they were performing from memory as well as improvising.
“A big part of [the class] was an emphasis on improvisation; I’m adamant about
the idea. In the chanties, the lyrics were never fixed, they were always changing and they were always
improvised, and this is the original way
of singing them,” Schreffler said. “The activity can’t stop; it’s not about you performing for anyone; it’s about this
task that everyone’s involved in, so it’s
imperative that you keep it going no
matter what it is but you have to have that kind of skill of being on your feet.”
Classmates seemed comfortable with each other, singing and
together in a group effort. They were an eclectic bunch with different academic interests and musical experiences.
“I think it’s fun no matter … what commitment
background you come in with. Our class is all really cool people,” Anna Balchman PO
’16 said. “We’ve developed a little community.
If I see them around campus, I get really
class showed a special bond due to the amount of interaction and
activity they engage in. Not only is it an opportunity to meet new people and
connect through singing, but the class has also proven to be useful for other courses that students are taking.
“I like learning about the history of the songs. I’m in a
music theory class as well,” Keanan Gottlieb PZ ’17 said. “So, being
able to be like, ‘Oh, I learned about harmonies today in music theory!’ I can then visualize how the notes and
harmonies should be.”
However, the class is not limited to those like Gottlieb
who have prior knowledge of ethnomusicology. It’s truly for anyone who enjoys
music and is open to expanding his or her musical taste.
“It’s opened me up to a whole new genre of music,” Lora
Funk PZ ’16 said. “It’s fun to get together and sing and joke around. We don’t take
ourselves that seriously.”
Schreffler stressed that there is an academic
side to the course—with discussions and research on certain chanties—but it is
ultimately meant to be a time for students to enjoy each other’s company
and a nice break from a rigorous course
“It’s a great course,” said Julia Finkelstein PZ ’16. “I
highly recommend that
people take it.”
While Schreffler certainly enjoys good music and even likes
to DJ, he said that he does not own an iPod because he dislikes the use of prerecorded
music to shape and engineer lives. For
Schreffler, music is about building an
internal, natural musical repertoire that allows you to experience music on a completely different level.
He said he hopes that this is one of the many
things his students will take away from this class.
“The reason why I feel these chanties are useful to learn is
because that experience of incorporating our own self-made music into our
daily routine is going away. I feel a little
sense of loss,”
Schreffler said. “And that’s the thing that I think you can tap into through chanty chants. That’s how my life has
become now—really reliant on my self-made
music—and if somehow I can instill a
taste of that to the students, that’s the part that makes me happy.”
The Sea Chanty & Maritime Music Ensemble will perform
Wednesday, Dec. 4 at 8 p.m. in Lyman Hall in Pomona’s Thatcher Music Building.
Admission is free.