Monday, June 29, 2009

Mystic Seaport: "Music of the Sea"

Mystic Seaport and the "Music of the Sea" Symposium.

Museum people are pretty fun to hang around, not least because they understand that scholarship without accessibility--without translation to some kind of wider audience--is essentially self-indulgence. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as George Costanza would say, but there's no denying that scholarship which speaks only to other scholars has a strong tendency toward isolation and questionable relevancy. If, as I've blogged before, you can't help non-specialists see the value of the research you're doing--if you fail at the task of advocacy on behalf of your research--then your days as a subsidized ivory towered Olympian (or at least Parthenonian) intellect are probably numbered.

That said, the museum people *do* tend to understand the need for accessibility, translation, and advocacy. Adding to that fundamental soundness is their tendency to be deeply, personally and professionally interested in the topics they're working on, and excited about being in a situation that lets them do that work: why wouldn't you be? spending your working days surrounded by artifacts, information, and environments that are your own personal avocation? So they're pretty much infectiously excited about their work, and, hell, excitement and some personal commitment is three-quarters of accessibility anyway.

So it's been pleasant to spend a couple of days here at the Mystic Seaport, a living-history museum that sprawls along the east side of the Mystic River as it debouches out toward the Atlantic. A place I've never been: yesterday, a couple of locals, after inquiring how a Texan could wind up giving a paper in Connecticut, and discovering I was originally from the North Shore of Massachusetts, were gobsmacked that I'd "never been to Mystic before." I don't have any particularly good excuse for that: 50 years on, childhood on the Atlantic, work on lobster boats and in sail lofts, and I'd never been here. But, as I said to my interrogators (in my best Nawth Shoah accent) "well, y'know growin' up in Mahbulhead like I did, we din't exactly need no Mystic Seapawt", and they laughed and agreed.

You get the feeling that a lot of these folks, born between, say 1945 and 1965, found their way into traditional musics during the Great Folk Scare of the early '60s: the college kids who went to the Club 47 in Cambridge and the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island and started out playing Woody Guthrie and Bill Monroe tunes. Some of these folks, realizing the cultural disconnect between their own urban, post-WWII, university-educated, often Jewish or Catholic backgrounds and those of their heroes, in response turned toward either more immediate-from-their-own-heritage musics--the klezmer revival, for example, was sparked when Tommy Jarrell said to Hank Sapoznik "don't Jews have their own music?"--or more specific/less-catchall repertoires:the blues revivalists I knew in the '70s, the Irish trad types who I joined myself, or--in the case of Mystic--the "sea music" (mostly unaccompanied chanteys) of our own region.

And there is a slightly twee feeling about this place: about every third of the historic houses is some kind of tourist Gifte Shoppe or "Inne", and there's an awfully high incidence of sack-dresses and luxuriant muttonchop sideburns amongst the sea-music types.

But the whiff of cordage and seaweed, the calls of the gulls, the calluses in the handshakes even of the scholars and museum types, and the particular opalescent quality of the sky's light over the ocean, aren't faked and can't be. For my first half-century, when I would go "home" to visit aged parents, I would always know I was "home" when I woke up that first morning to the call of the gulls: an absolutely unmistakable sound and one redolent of my childhood. Now, in my second half-century, that's gone: with aged parents in managed care facilities, and with the last mementos and the house of my childhood long since jettisoned, the truth of the Buddhist teaching that the only "home" any of us truly has is the ground under our feet is really learned. But the teaching says nothing about abandoning memory. And memory, here, is still really strong.

So returning to the Atlantic coast, and the sounds and smells of my childhood, and spending 36 hours with people whose passion for the stories, history, people, and artifacts of the sea reminds me likewise, is not an unwelcome recollection.

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