Maiden Voyage

Maiden Voyage

Experiencing Sea Chantey Night at the Griswold Inn had been on my list for so long that I’d allowed it take on mythic proportions. Like seeing a game at Fenway or finding the perfect lobster roll, the goal was simple enough to attain, but a certain reverence felt required. I had to be prepared. And not just because it’s a 45-minute drive from New Haven to Essex on a school night.

I had an admittedly absurd notion that this performance, held every Monday for more than 50 years inside one of the state’s oldest bars, might transport me to a time when ‘the Gris’ and its town were populated with more shipbuilders than boat owners. I’d stand shoulder to shoulder with folks that plied the river and smelled of the sea. People with coarse voices and coarser hands made rough by rum and rope, singing songs about hoisting things and… the wind. They’d be the embodied rebuttal to the country club, prep school version of Connecticut coloring outside perception of the Nutmeg State, even if they’d sing as well as the Whiffenpoofs. In short, they’d be that brand of working-class authenticity that soft-skilled knuckleheads like me follow on Instagram.

Of course, that’s not the crowd I found at my first Chantey Night. And yet I wasn’t disappointed.

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Yale School of Music

The bar at the Griswold is worth the trip alone. The inn’s been open since 1776, the bar since 1801, good for a pint or, any time of year, a hot buttered rum. It has a certain museum quality to it, but it isn’t precious. The smoke-covered paintings above the wood-burning fireplace and the seasonally redecorated Christmas tree perched on the potbelly stove help give the place a comfortable, lived-in quality that newer bars just can’t replicate. The surfaces are timeworn and soothingly matte, the light low and unobtrusive.

The tables on Chantey Night were full from stem to stern. Most people seemed to know the words to every song and came prepared to sing, shout and stomp with the band, The Jovial Crew, through three sets. The rhythmic work songs, originally sung on the decks of ships, often featured call-and-response choruses celebrating everything from good ale to donkey riding to the queen’s fertility. I was familiar with some of the standards, like “Blow the Man Down” and “Roll the Ol’ Chariot,” but most were completely unknown to me. I’m not much for sing-alongs and I’ve never understood the appeal of role-playing games, but Chantey Night offered a subversively real kind of LARPing, like going to a rowdy soccer pub inside Comic-Con, or vice versa.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised by the genuine sense of community I felt at Chantey Night. Regulars of every age and stripe made generous room for greenhorns like me. A bearded, surly-looking man in a utilikilt kindly gave way at the bar for a cheery young couple that looked like they’d stumbled right out of an L.L.Bean ad. A middle-aged woman knitted at a table, mouthing the words to every tune, and a raucous group of twentysomethings created a kids’ table vibe in the opposite corner.

And the songs were good, performed with a knowing levity and showmanship that kept the whole thing from sinking under the weight of period piece theatricality. Like the bar that hosts it, Chantey Night preserves the past without hermetically sealing it behind museum glass. Of course, I’ll never fully appreciate “Skipper Jan Rebeck’s” ability to furl the main topsail, but I did allow myself to be transported, just briefly, to a time before propellers, much less GPS. And when the chorus of a 19th-century Crimean War song, dedicated by a member of the band to Ukraine, called for peace and the possibility of no more wars, I was moved to softly sing along.

If you want a seat, or a meal, or even just a little space to yourself, I recommend getting there before 8 p.m., when the food stops and the music starts. After enjoying a bowl of chowder, I moseyed into the main bar area with my belly full and a drink in hand. I stood my black and tan on the mantle of the fireplace, watched the last ember burning in the ash at my feet and felt grateful that this tradition not far from the mouth of the Connecticut is still holding on.

Written and photographed by Chris Renton.

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