Documenting Maritime Folklife: An Introductory Guide
Part 1: What to Document
Oral traditions include jokes, riddles, rhymes, legends, songs, and stories,
as well as non-narrative forms such as jargon, regional speech, and local
place names. Often these expressions can be distinguished from normal discourse
on the basis of certain
verbal clues, or "markers," that announce the beginning of an oral performance.
For example, the phrase "that reminds me about the one about . . ." suggests
that a joke is about to be told. "As the old people used to say . . ." may
herald a proverb. Tall tales, on the other hand, may not be identifiable at
gradually define themselves as the teller begins to exaggerate. John Gavagan
of Atlantic Beach, Florida, relates a brief tall tale:
[My friend] told me that he remembered when there wasn't any mullet.
He said there was a big drought about fishing and the beach fishermen stayed
there [on the beach] all winter and [got] nothing whatsoever. They would actually
go in their boats and go looking [for fish]. He said that they saw a fire one
night on the very far end of the little jetties. And they pulled in there to
see maybe if they were catching something. And [they] saw that there were two
porpoises there roasting a possum. That's how bad the fishing was. You know that's
Sometimes an oral performance can be very brief and can occur with no warning
at all. In the following interchange, the interviewer falls for the humorous
and clever trap set by Mayport, Florida, net maker and former shrimper Martin
Interviewer: What's the most important part of [catching shrimp]?
Cooper: The most important part is, I'll explain it to you this way.
The shrimping operation starts at the bow stem of a boat and it ends where
you tie the cod end. If anything goes wrong in between any of them places
it affects your shrimping. And, ah, but the most important thing, getting
back to your question. What is the thing that holds the steering wheel
on? You know, that, what's that little thing you screw on behind the steering
wheel to hold it on?
Interviewer: A nut or something?
Cooper: That's right, the nut behind the wheel is the most important
Personal-experience stories and legends are other narrative forms. Personal
experience stories are stories that recount especially dramatic episodes in
people's lives. Turning an account of an experience into art, the storyteller
frames it with a beginning, middle and end, and peoples it with a cast of characters.
Captain Eddie Baker of Mayport, Florida, a retired shrimp fisherman, relates
the following personal-experience story about a close call:
Baker: I've got in trouble in a storm. I got caught down on the beach
here in a storm when everybody [else] went with the weather, and I
figured I could have beat [against] the weather to St. Augustine. And it took
me, well, it took me nineteen hours.
Interviewer: Going right into the wind?
Baker: Going into the wind. And I had to slow down, and something tell
me, "You slow it down." And I slowed the boat down. And then, the boy right
there said, "Captain, you got the boat full of water." I said, "It is?" I
said, "Ease the anchor overboard." And he got down in the hold, and all
the trash, all the trash [had] got in the pump. And [he had to] clean it
out . . . . I let the engine run, and he pumped it out. We got the anchor
up, and we made it on to St. Augustine. We got to St. Augustine, and he
said, "Captain, you can't go in there." And I said, "You do like I tell
you to do." I say, "I'm not up here by myself." And I set the compass and
went straight in [to] the bar with two other fellow's boats behind me.
And I got on in [by] the bar, and they said, "Hey, you going to Augustine?" And
I said, "No, I'm going on home." I come up through the inside [passage],
come on in to Mayport. And I got inside, and I said, "Thank you, Jesus."3
Legends are narratives, supposedly based on fact, that are told about persons,
places, or events. For example, in the adjacent fishing communities of Beals
and Jonesport, Maine, legends about fisherman Barney Beal are well known. Beal
was a giant of a man and the stories about him invariably focus on his tremendous
strength. As the stories were passed on to newer generations in the years since
Beals's death in 1899, actual events have been embellished and new stories created.
In 1956, folklorist Richard Dorson collected this story about from one of Beals's
Dorson: Now, you were telling me a very interesting account of the
time the bully of Peak's Island challenged him to a fight.
Esten Beal: Yes, I've heard that story told many a time, that he went
into Peak's Island to get water for his fishing vessel. And the bully of
Peak's Island met him on the beach and challenged him to a fight. So he
told him that as soon as he filled his water barrel why he would accommodate
him. So he went and filled his water barrel. And they used to use these
large molasses tierces for water barrels. So he brought the water barrel
down on the beach, and he said, "Well," he said, "I guess before we start,
I'll have a drink of water." So he picked up the water barrel and took
a drink out of the bunghole, set it down on the beach, and the bully of
Peak's Island walked up, slapped him on the shoulder, and says, "Mr. Beal,
I don't think I'll have anything to do with you whatever."4
Oral traditions common to maritime communities include legends about buried
treasure, how an individual met his death at sea, and how an island, or some
other feature of the landscape, acquired its name. Tall tales are frequently
told about large or unusual catches of fish, bad weather, and feats of strength.
Personal- experience stories abound and are often concerned with such topics
as the biggest catch ever made, the strangest catch ever made, and the closest
encounter with death on the water.
The vernacular names used for familiar things
such as fish, plants, birds, cloud forms, boats, and gear are important elements
of traditional knowledge
that are expressed orally. While identical terms are sometimes used in different
communities, there is generally a good deal of regional variation as well.
For example, the end of a trawl net is usually called the "cod end" by New
England fishermen, while in the Southeast it is often called the "tail bag." And,
not surprisingly, things found only within relatively small geographic regions,
including unique boat types or species of fish or birds, possess traditional
names unknown outside the region. An example is the "bird dog" boat, an open,
inshore fishing craft used along the Gulf Coast of Florida. In many communities,
residents follow traditional rules for giving formal names to individual boats.
For example, in a large number of fishing towns it is customary to name a boat
after the owner's wife, child, or some other close relative.
Some Traditional Names for Oysters in Apalachicola, Florida
- Burr: a cluster of oysters.
- Coon: an oyster that grows close to the shore, so close
that raccoons can gather it.
- Cup: an oyster with a rounded, cup-like shape.
- Scissor: an oyster with a long, narrow shell.
- Select: a single oyster of marketable size not attached
to another oyster or to any foreign matter.
The use of distinctive words and phrases also constitutes traditional knowledge
expressed orally. In many Florida fishing communities, it is common to hear
fishermen use such regionally distinctive words as "hang" (an underwater obstruction), "kicker" (an
outboard motor), and "lick" (a pass over fishing grounds with a net or other
Nearly every maritime occupation has its own jargon of words and phrases,
seldom known outside of the occupation, that label fishing gear, tools, procedures,
and occupational roles.
Place names are of great significance, especially
traditional names for fishing grounds. If these names have been in use long
enough, they sometimes become
recognized as "official" names and are used on charts. Many, however, are known
only by fishermen. Other important names identify local landmarks used for
lining up courses and for judging distances along the shore. Names that shrimpers
use for landmarks south of Mayport, Florida, followed by the features from
which the names were derived, include:
- "Crazy House": a shoreside house built to an unorthodox
- "Golf Ball": a water tower shaped like an enormous golf
- "The Road": a dirt road running perpendicular to the
- "Three Houses": a cluster of three houses. Interestingly,
place names like these sometimes continue to be used after the original
landmarks have disappeared.
Song is another category of oral expression, and songs with maritime themes
or songs performed within the contexts of maritime occupations are sometimes
encountered. In the past, songs about the sea and worksongs sung to facilitate
certain tasks figured prominently in the lives of seamen and other inhabitants
of coastal communities. Today, largely because of technological change in maritime
occupations, and the spread of popular music through electronic media, these
expressions are less uncommon. For example, with the advent of engines to haul
anchors and nets, the need to sing songs that helped concentrate group labor
was eliminated. And in most oyster houses, popular music broadcast from a radio
has replaced the singing of songs by shuckers, songs sung to reduce the monotony of
the work.5 But residents of maritime communities still compose songs
that reflect ties to maritime heritage and associated values. Take, for example,
the song "Oyster Man Blues," written by Mack Novak, a native of Eastpoint,
"Oyster Man Blues"
by Mack Novak
Now, this is going to be a quick story in oystering in which you have to
go out and separate the little oysters from the big oysters so you won't
get a ticket. And it goes something like this:
Their day it starts at 5 A.M.---they hit the bar.
They've got their Maxwell House Coffee in a Bama Mayonnaise jar.
Out goes the anchor, and then over go the tongs.
At 10 A.M. they're saying, "Oh, Lord, where did I go wrong?"
those oysterman's blues.
He can't afford a pair of shoes.
His hickory sticks, well, they're slapping out a tune.
And it's called those oysterman's blues.
When he tongs up those oysters,
then he throws them on the deck,
He reaches over to his wife and he gives her a little peck.
Then he hands her a glove and a cull iron,
And says, "Honey, separate these things 'cause I sure am tired.
got those oysterman's blues.
I can't afford a pair of shoes.
My hickory sticks, well, they're slapping out a tune
And it's called those oysterman's blues.
He comes in from the bar expecting to go home,
but there's a grouper trooper on the dock in his grey uniform.
He pulls out his oyster ruler and he goes to work.
When the count is 35 percent, he says, "Hey, you're out of luck."
got those oysterman's blues.
You can't afford a pair of shoes.
Your hickory sticks, I'll bet they're slapping out a tune.
And I'll bet it's called those oysterman's blues.
Yeah, it's called those oysterman's blues.6
This song is noteworthy because, in addition to choosing the most distinctive
fishery of the Apalachicola Bay region as its theme, it describes oystering
from an insider's perspective. It depicts a typical day of oystering, using
occupational jargon such as "hickory sticks" (wooden oyster tongs), "cull iron" (metal
tool used to bang apart oysters that have formed clumps), "grouper trooper" (state
fisheries patrol officer), and "oyster ruler" (measuring device used to determine
if oysters are of legal size). Songs like "Oysterman's Blues" can provide researchers
with valuable clues to the way insiders conceptualize the process of work,
and can help illuminate the values that are important to fishermen, their families,
and other residents of their communities.7
1. Interview with John Gavagan of Neptune
Beach, Florida, recorded July 26, 1986, by David Taylor. This tape recorded interview
is on deposit at the Florida Folklife Archives, Bureau of Florida Folklife Programs,
2. Interview with net maker Martin
Cooper of Mayport, Florida, recorded July 27, 1984, by David Taylor. Florida
Folklife Archives accession number C-86-198.
3. Interview with retired shrimp
fisherman Eddie Baker of Mayport, Florida, recorded July 16, 1986, by David
Taylor. Tape recorded interview on deposit at the Florida Folklife Archives,
White Springs, Florida.
For a fine compilation of personal experience narratives
concerned with a maritime occupation, see: Timothy C. Lloyd and Patrick B.
Erie Fishermen: Work, Tradition, and Identity (Urbana and Chicago:
University of Illinois Press, 1990).
4. Richard Dorson, Buying
the Wind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 50-1. For
other stories about Beal, see: Velton Peabody, Tall Barney: The Giant of
Beals Island (Williamsville, N.Y.: Periwinkle Press, 1975).
5. In shucking houses where the
use of electric shucking machines has replaced shucking by hand, the noise
level created by the machines is so high that singing is virtually unintelligible.
In such contexts, shuckers often listen to a radio that broadcasts music
throughout the room, or to personal radios or cassette players they listen
Singing by oyster shuckers is discussed by Johnson in her article "'Sloppy
Work for Women': Shucking Oysters on the Patuxent," 49-51.
Novak, "Oysterman's Blues," St.
George Sound Records CSS-152, 1978. 45 r.p.m. disk recording. Copyright Mack
Novak, reprinted with permission.
a more detailed discussion, see: David A. Taylor, "Songs About Fishing: Examples
of Contemporary Maritime Songs," Canadian Folklore Canadien,
12 no. 2 (1990): 85-99.