Certain kinds of music build communities, as do certain kinds of musicians, and nowhere is there more proof of that than Monday nights at the Griswold Inn in Essex, where people from across the shoreline and state of all ages come together for what is now a 45 year-old tradition: sea chantey night.
In the inn’s cozy taproom, the dim, warm atmosphere accented by the year-round Christmas tree in the middle of the room, the smell of good food, and the nautical details everywhere, The Jovial Crew, currently composed of Cliff Haslam, Joseph Morneault, Tim Marth, and Rick Spencer, entertains and delights audiences of all ages with music that reflects a living history of the everyday man.
The Griswold Inn has been owned by the Paul family for about 22 years, but the musical tradition started long before that, according to Jovial Crew member, musician, and historian by avocation Joseph Morneault.
“Bill Winterer acquired the Gris around the 1970s. He really wanted to capitalize on the historic nature of the building, and stretched certain truths to the point where they have now become facts because they’ve been repeated so often, but one of the things he wanted was music that would be appropriate to the historical venue,” says Morneault. “So, he was apparently going around and ended up in Mystic at a place called The Jolly Beggar, and there he heard this guy called Cliff Haslam singing. He says to him, ‘I’d like you to come sing at our place,’ and Cliff came down to the Gris and basically auditioned, and he’s been there since.”
The early days of the Monday night performances looked far different than they do today. Haslam used to perform alone or with friends joining him, and other musicians playing along from the audience. The line-up of “Cliff and friends” included a rotating cast including Morneault, Paul Elliott, who later moved to Florida, Bob Stepno, Thomas Wolf, and the late Jim Bennet, Howard Hornstein, and Vinny Lang. In 1986, the current members at the time officially became “The Jovial Crew.”
Participatory and Professional
While the faces would change, the music always stayed true to its historic roots—always folk, always participatory, and always performed by people who were not just enthusiasts, but professional musicians in their own right who understood not only how and why people connect with the long history of these songs today, but also how that history has developed and changed over time, and why.
“Folk music, in a very roundabout way, can be performance or participatory, and what we do tends to be more participatory. The sign says ‘sea chanteys’ and we do sing sea chanteys—but a chantey properly is a work song. Another class of song was known as a forebitter, and these were any songs that were sung purely for entertainment,” says Morneault. “Some of the songs are local to the area, but by the time they were collected, they became generic enough to refer to common ports, like Liverpool or New York.”
From sea chanteys to forebitters, and other folk songs, the group ties the music to the locale, fitting their performance to not only the place but the audience. Earlier songs from history might refer to specific ports or events, or be Connecticut songs, or English songs whose lyrics have been changed to localize them. Other changes might include small tweaks to fit modern sensibilities—including those that get sung in the infamous, rowdier, third set of the night, where innuendo and humor pepper the lyrics, some of it subtle, and some not so much so, as with the birthday song most regulars have learned to sing with vigor.
“They get changed, and they really become songs that can be sung anywhere,” says Morneault. “This music is a hidden gem, but coming out more. The songs are allegory, like Mother Goose tales, they are reflections of stories that can’t be told. And the innuendo, well, that’s the joke, that’s much more fun.”
Newbies, Dedicated Regulars Welcome
The night usually has two more-tame acts, at which classic folk songs are performed, the crowd gets warmed up, and the true talent of the musicians in the Jovial Crew can be displayed. Whether heading toward the bar, taking up a spot in the back corner, leaning against the fireplace (a favorite spot, especially in winter—but stay out of the very hard working wait-staff’s way), or picking a spot at a table, newcomers on Monday nights will always see the same thing: Old friends and new friends, and more often than not, Gris-friends getting together to just relax and enjoy themselves.
The songs are easy to pick up on, and singing along is encouraged, with many a humorous call-and-response thrown in—some which might have been historically appropriate, but some, one suspects, have their origins in sea chantey night itself.
“The music is an oral tradition, and now, adding on, you become a part of that history of the music,” says Morneault.
And people remain interested in becoming a part of that history; while the Griswold Inn features music every night, Monday night is by far its most successful night, with noticeably dedicated regulars.
“It’s 45 years and going, and it is very appropriate music for us, it connects with the maritime history and the themes of the inn,” says Joan Paul, a member of the Paul family that owns and operates the inn. “There’s something special about the tap room, it’s warm, embracing, and you can feel the camaraderie. And they are such wonderful musicians, they can really interact with their crowd, it makes them stand out. It feels like fam ily in there on a Monday night.”
“Rain, sleet snow, gloom of night, they are there—it’s wonderful the way that music brings everybody together,” adds Paul.
Sea chantey night at the Griswold Inn (36 Main Street) takes place Monday nights at 8 p.m. For more information about the band, visit www.thejovialcrew.com. For more information about sea chantey night or the Griswold Inn, call 860-767-1776 or visit www.griswoldinn.com.