Once upon a time, on the coast of Maine…
This is how the story began.
And everything that followed,
Was just a dream. Sweet Chariot Music Festival
Part II :
Led by Geoff Kaufman and Daisy Nell, sweet charioteers sail from boat to boat, jumping from one schooner to another to invite everyone to join the fun.
Tuning fork of the enamored sailors, the sea never ceased, storm after storm, and against all tides, to dismiss on its coastline the melancholia of the adventurer heart and of the scarred stories of all the sailors of the world.
And this generous muse, seducing the first rocks of Maine, has forgotten the waves on a striking landscape, revealing the colored imprint of countless seasons. A landscape of paradox where all the harmonies are gathering to make only one, where the landforms rub shoulders with the softer horizons, and mostly where men seem to prefer the small fishing boats to the big tankers. Finally, birthed from the foam caresses, Swans Island.
The opulence wealth of the nearby continent, its chorus charged with history, its notes disembarked from all the old boats, and the scent of the sea, melodies filled with compasses, random voices of the winds…Music on port and starboard.
Several autumns ago, a group of artists have decided to take the sea and with their most beautiful voices, to marry the very traditional American folk with the misty tales of the harbor taverns. Then, the crew became bigger, the water less troubled, the voices louder…to share the adventure, they organized a festival, the Sweet Chariot music and art festival.
From in and around the old white farmhouse on Swan’s Island, a melodic hum floats on the warm August Breeze. A fiddle player lounges in the grass, picking out a tune, while someone naps in a hammock on the porch. Inside, the remains of a cold buffet lunch are on the kitchen island, and a group of singers is clustered around an upright piano in the front parlor. In the barn, two young men perch on milk crates—one strumming a dobro, the other a standard guitar—jamming with banjo player Bob Lucas as he sings the refrain of a North Carolina bootlegger’s song: “And the lamb will lay down with the lion, after drinking that old moonshine.”
“Come into my office,” Day says with a grin, ushering me into a plastic chair under an apple tree while he sprawls in a wooden wheelbarrow. Day proceeds to tell us about the event he has put every summer for almost 30 years now. For its relatively large size and proximity to the mainland—six miles—Swans is short on amenities. There are no hotels, restaurants, or even places to camp, just a handful of rooms at bed and breakfasts and one small general store (which does not sell alcohol), with an adjacent snack shack. Working with a small budget, about half from subsidized ticket sales and half from modest gifts, Day makes arrangements for the 30-plus performers to be housed in private homes. Many of them have been part of the festival for decades and see their annual visit as more of a chance to play together than a working gig. “The best audiences for musicians are other musicians,” Day says. “The limits that the remote location impresses, the isolation of the island and the gathering of poets, musicians and artists creates a very powerful, colorful and visual painting of portraits in music, frozen in time.”
A minority of festival attendees are island residents, and the rest arrive by boat, notably members of Maine’s schooner fleet, which include Swan’s Island on their schedule of overnight stops during festival week. The three nights of performances at the island’s 225-seat Odd Fellows Hall always sell out. The other visual and unusual festival event is the sea shanties performance sung from a square-rigger schooner as it wanders around Burnt Coat Harbor to invite the audience, followed by a myriad of small boats, and kayaks. The remoteness contributes to the soulfulness and the magic of it, the trigger to address the history of sea shanties and its maritime history.
Despite the glamourous aspect of the remote island and its cohort of musicians, the after parties hold the magic of the festival; the acoustic stage outside on the back deck with the banjo players and the fiddlers and the mandolin players; who carry on up to two or three o’clock in the morning. Folkloric music is poetry, is modern literature in sound, we use the festival and its multitalented cohort of musicians, playwrights, poets, painters to talk about its roots, its history and the predominance importance of arts and culture in our lives.
Day calls out to Lucas, strolling out of the barn with his banjo, to contribute to the conversation. “Every year we draw from each other’s collective juice, because it takes a lot to get here—time, money, energy, organization,” says Lucas, who lives in Ohio and has traveled to the island with his wife, daughter, and baby grandson. “Others, like Bob [Lucas], have put serious currency in the soul bank to make this happen,” says Day. “Because soul matters so much to us artists,” Lucas replies, chuckling. “If you ain’t got soul, you ain’t got nothing. Now we got to go sing on a boat.”
The rehearsal gradually breaks up, and we meet an eager group on a dock in Burnt Coat Harbor, where the 32-foot brigantine Redbird is tied up. The ship’s owner and captain, Daisy Nell, and her partner, Stan Collinson, known as Captain Stan, invite us aboard. Both are musicians from Massachusetts, where Nell founded the Gloucester Schooner Festival. We recognize the two guitarists who were playing with Lucas in the barn, Magnus Ferguson and Cody Gibson; together with fiddler Reid Jenkins they make up the Morningsiders, one of the newer groups to join the festival, young Morningsiders are notorious on the NYC new music renaissance scene. Jenkins is a second-generation participant; along with his parents, Richard and Sandy, and sisters, Stephanie and Cassandra, all musicians, he has performed at Sweet Chariot since he was a child – we see him perform on stage as a six year old as he reminisce about his first festival (archival footage). As soon as we pull away from the dock, Nell leads the group into their first shanty, “I thought I heard the old man say, John Kanaka-naka-tu-lai-e,” accompanied by a drum and tambourine. We glide past the crew and passengers of two schooners, the American Eagle and the Lewis R. French, and weave through other boats at anchor. All the while a band of smaller craft—kayaks, paddleboards, and a little gaff rig dinghy— trails us like a flock of ducklings. Standing amidships on the Redbird, Geoff Kaufman, who runs the annual Sea Music Festival at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, pulls out a squeezebox and launches into a rousing version of “Strike the Bell,” with everyone chiming in mightily on the chorus. We wrap up the magical experience with Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O” as Nell steers the Redbird back to shore. To be continued…