Neptune’s Orchestra: Songs of the Seafarer

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Indian musicians aboard MAGDAPUR“Neptune’s Orchestra: Songs of the Seafarer” takes visitors on a musical journey through a variety of music made by and heard by seafarers in the Age of Sail. A 15-minute audio-visual tour combines music, images, and artifacts to present a panoramic view of maritime music through the themes of “Deepwater Sail,” “Fishing and Coasting,” “Inland Waters,” Whaling,” and “Far-Flung Ports.” For an in-depth musical experience, a listening booth provides access to dozens of full-length songs from a variety of sources. The Mallory Wing houses an array of activities that allow visitors to make and play musical instruments, explore their reactions to music in visual media, and investigate the processes of creating music. Live performances will be scheduled on a regular basis, and interactive workshops will enhance the experience.

Sailors in the age of sail brought their musical memories and abilities with them aboard ship, and some crews brought together people from many different backgrounds. Once a ship left port, whatever music came aboard in people’s heads and hands formed the basis for any music made during the passage. Working in an occupation in which they were constantly moving from place to place, sailors sometimes encountered musical sounds and traditions far different from those they remembered from home. These encounters often led to exchange of different musical ideas, instruments, and techniques.

Addison Scholfield portraitOut of their musical memories from home, experiences during voyages and their encounters with unfamiliar musical traditions, sailors created distinctive music that reflects their lives, work, and dreams. Songs used to coordinate the work of sailing a ship, known by the mid-nineteenth century as “chanteys”, often include details of the hardships, pleasures, dangers, and frustrations of life on a ship carrying cargo and passengers. Whalemen’s songs recounted the wonders, terrors, and drudgery of hunting and processing whales for their oil. Fishermen and coasting sailors sang of the danger of shipwreck and the quirks of shipmates and officers. Those that moved by boat up and down rivers and canals carried a variety of sounds that led to the complex musical culture of America’s heartland, from the blues of Memphis to the musical gumbo of New Orleans. Music smoothed the way in innumerable encounters between mariners and the inhabitants of far-flung ports.

Mystic Seaport houses an extraordinary collection of musical instruments that went to sea, historic images of sailors, passengers, and port dwellers playing music and dancing, logbooks and journals recounting musical events, recordings, and film that will bring to life a time when making and hearing world music required traveling around the world. America’s rich musical heritage owes much to the way in which seafarers and river mariners carried music, musical instruments, and musicians from place to place. This exhibit explores that history and give visitors a chance to listen, to play, and to work to the sounds created by sailors before recording was invented.


Pictured from the Museum’s collection: (top right) Indian musicians aboard MAGDAPUR; (bottom left) portrait of Addison Scholfield.