Concertina players converge on Portsmouth

Maritime Folk Festival at several venues Sept. 27-28

Ellen Hamil

If you’re walking towards Market Square in Portsmouth around 1 p.m. on the last Sunday of this month, you might think you’re hearing voices. As you get closer, you’ll realize you are - robust voices - and they’re cast in song. In fact, it’s a sea chantey. And perhaps if you close your eyes, you might imagine a clipper ship in the harbor with its sails aloft and the crew heaving the capstan in time to the music to raise the anchor. On the other hand, if you see several men and women in front of the old bank, then you can count on it being the start of the final day of the ninth Portsmouth Maritime Folk Festival and what you’re hearing is a group from Gloucester who call themselves “Three Sheets to the Wind” and who have no trouble filling the square with the rants and roars of true-born young whaler men.

Three Sheets to the Wind winding up. (Photo courtesy of PMFF)

Market Square is just one of several venues around  town  that host this event. At the Athenaeum, Oppenheimer, the Rusty Hammer, and The Works, performers – either in groups or solo – are sharing their songs with audiences from seafaring towns in New England and beyond to landlubbers from across the country. Some visitors to Portsmouth during this weekend have remarked on their good fortune for “being in the right place at the right time.” There’s nothing that puts a sweet topping on a hastily planned weekend away from home more than stumbling upon a charming city on a beautiful fall day and finding oneself smack, dab in the middle of a musical festival that gives you a chance to meander in and out of pubs and shops while being serenaded. Wherever you venture, you’ll find you have the opportunity to join in on a chorus or two.

To backtrack to the origins of the festival about eight years ago, you need to meet Jeff Warner, a seacoast musician and music historian. Jeff is one of those musical treasures to Portsmouth, to New Hampshire, to folk music, and in particular to maritime folk music. After visiting England and performing in music festivals and street fairs, he thought the concept of performing both indoors and on the street could be adapted to his home town of Portsmouth, N.H., and went to work putting together the first maritime folk festival. He had the encouragement and support of a group of local musicians led by Tom Hall and Linn Schulz, who had been gathering monthly at the Press Room to trade seafaring songs across the table on select Saturday afternoons. Now Jeff and some of the Press Room performers participate in the festival and sing a variety of sea songs that they accompany on the concertina, guitar, banjo, bones, Jew’s harp or penny whistle.

Jeff Warner
(PMFF photos)

John Roberts.

Some perform without musical accompaniment, but most accompany themselves on a small, squeeze-box instrument called the concertina. I’m going to pause here to tell you a little about the concertina as not too many people are familiar with it. Concertinas are typically made up of two thin, six-sided boxes connected by leather bellows (usually 7 – 10 folds). Small round buttons on each side are pressed instead of piano keys to activate the metal reeds as the bellows are pushed or pulled. The right and left hand slip through leather straps on each side to hold the instrument.  Larger concertinas are held on the lap or on the thigh if standing. Small ones can be held with no support other than the straps or thumb loops. Most concertinas make the same sound on the push and pull, but one called the Anglo is similar to the harmonica with a different note on the push and pull.

Concertinas went to sea with the whalers, fishermen and traders. They were small and didn’t take up much space.  The chanteys helped the sailors pass time – often working long hours on monotonous tasks like heaving (pushing) the capstan to raise the anchor or the sails. A good chantey man - with the interchange of verse and chorus – could maintain a cadence necessary for the task at hand. When they were off watch, the songs – and the concertinas – helped the sailors pass the long months at sea.
Tom Hall, who along with Linn Schulz, is the organizer of this year’s event told me 14 singers are scheduled to perform this year who play the concertina, including one woman, Lynn Noel. Typically it was an instrument played by men but, according to Warner, this is no longer the case. If anyone reading this is a concertina aficionado, you’ll appreciate Tom’s comment about this year’s lineup:  “In addition to the usual run of Wheatstone, Lachenal and Jeffries English Concertinas and Anglos, there will be some more uncommon boxes to include a Dipper baritone, a Dipper MacCann duet, a Crane duet and maybe a Morse or two as well.”  

Linn Shulz and Tom Hall at the Press Room chantey night.(Photo by Ellen Hamil)

How a concertina player is paired up with his first concertina is a question I had. I started with my husband, David, who took up playing a concertina a few years ago.  “I talked to Bob Webb, a performer at the PMFF, about acquiring a concertina.  Bob explained the different kinds of concertinas and told me about the Button Box in Sunderland, Mass., that  sells and repairs them and has a Web site that he said would be helpful. I followed his advice and decided on a Hayden duet concertina. I’ve had a lot of fun learning to play it.”

David's Hayden Duet.(Photo by Ellen Hamil)

Tom Hall told me he settled on an English concertina “because it was the one I first heard that accompanied traditional songs and I wanted to be able to play in several keys with just one instrument which is not possible with an Anglo. At the time I didn’t know anything about Duets.”

Tom Hall's English concertina.(Photo by Ellen Hamil)

Bob Webb acquired his first MacCann, a Lachenal 48-key, in about 1975 in what he calls a “horsetrade that involved an old five-string banjo and some other instrument.”  He learned to play it after using a piano to devise a scale-chart and fingering system, and said, “luckily I made the correct choices and didn’t have to re-learn anything later.”

There are not an over-abundance of quality concertinas available. In fact, their scarcity might place them on an endangered species list. Many are antiques that have been restored. There are a handful of skilled craftsmen in this country and in the British Isles who make them. Either way – commissioned or collected – they are costly.

What is apparent throughout this festival is that no matter how deep a performer reaches into his pocket for a chantey, forebitter or fo’c’s’le song, he can count on about half the audience to know the words and the other half willing to learn them. Most of the presenters take time to explain the song, its meaning and use aboard ship before singing it. It’s a fascinating history lesson of days long gone.

The Portsmouth Maritime Folk Festival is a N.H. non-profit corporation affiliated with the Piscataqua Maritime Commission. There is no charge to see and hear the performers but donations are accepted. You can find the schedule on the Web site: It’s worth noting that the event kicks off around noon on Saturday at RiverRun Bookstore before heading to the Press Room. Don’t miss the Saturday night program at the Masonic Temple. Remember the dates:  September 27 and 28.  Heave ho, me lads, the winds blow free…  

Letters in October, 2008 and November, 2008

September, 2008