Northern Neck Chantey Singers

menhaden sea chanteys
Northern Neck of Virginia

Hailing from the Northern Neck of Virginia, a peninsula lying between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers in the Chesapeake Bay, the Northern Neck Chantey Singers are a group of men in their 70s, 80s and 90s. They are last of their generation to perform the work songs unique to the African American menhaden fishermen who once worked the coastal waters from New Jersey to the Carolinas. Today, the group’s longstanding members carry on this one-time occupational tradition alongside several apprentices who are eager to keep alive the songs of black menhaden fishermen. 

The menhaden is a small, inedible fish valued for its oil that is used in making paint, animal feed and fertilizer. For nearly two centuries menhaden have been fished, first in small boats, but then in large vessels that put out long rowboats manned by mostly African American fishermen. From these rowboats, as many as 40 men hauled in a “purse seine,” a net filled with as many as 50 tons of fish. To coordinate their movements as they accomplished this backbreaking feat, they sang what they called “chanteys.” These call-and-response songs also provided the fishermen with energy, camaraderie, distraction, and spiritual encouragement. Several of the Northern Neck Chantey Singers worked aboard these boats as young men, where they pulled up, by hand, nets teeming with menhaden from the Chesapeake and Atlantic. Their generation was the last to haul nets by hand—power winches took over in the late 1950s—and hence the last to use these chanteys while at work.

These menhaden fishermen’s work songs represent a tradition that has been little known outside their communities, probably because chanteys were sung only at sea by men working in a specialized fishing industry with two centers of production: Reedville, Virginia, and Beaufort, North Carolina. Chanteys were uncommon in other American commercial fisheries, and menhaden chanteys are for the most part unrelated to the traditional and better known “sea chanteys” that flourished among the polyglot crews of 19th-century American and British transatlantic sailing ships. In fact the menhaden chanteys would seem to be more closely related to the African American work songs that were common in the fields, on the docks, and for laying railroad track. Workers from these occupations found their way to the Virginia and Carolina coasts when the fishing industry began to employ more men early in the 20th century.

The Northern Neck Chantey Singers appearing in Richmond this year include Elton Smith, Jr., Clinton Hill, Christopher Harvey, and Lewis Blackwell, Sr.