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Sea Shantyman Brings New England's Seafaring History To Life Through Songs

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Huge multi-sail ships called tall ships are docked in Boston Harbor right now. They're there as part of an international regatta. And these ships are giving visitors a glimpse at a maritime age of the past. For one man who has music and whaling in his blood, having the tall ships in Boston Harbor is like Christmas morning.

He makes a living by bringing New England's seafaring history to life through songs and stories. WBUR's Shira Springer introduces us.

DAVID COFFIN: (Singing) Oh, it'd be all right if the wind was in our sails. Oh, it'd be all right...

SHIRA SPRINGER, BYLINE: When David Coffin sings a sea shanty, you can almost smell the salt air and hear the wind in the rigging. He belts out songs like a true sea shantyman. That's the name for the sailor who led the singing on long sea voyages.

COFFIN: The shantyman was probably not the shy kid in the back of the class. And neither was I (laughter).

SPRINGER: Coffin makes you want to tap your foot and join the chorus. On whaling ships, shanties were work songs, and they'd help sailors push, pull, haul and heave in unison.

COFFIN: There was always a rhythm for a certain job. And it took many hands to make light work. That's where it comes from.

(Singing) Away, Rio. It's there that the river flows down golden sand.

SPRINGER: It took many hands to turn the capstan, a barrel-like cylinder with poles sticking out the sides like spokes. The capstan was used to wind rope and cable and to move heavy objects.

COFFIN: So if you've got, you know, 12, 16 guys stamping around the capstan trying to haul up the anchor, if they all push at the same time, well, the anchor's going to actually move. The way you get that to happen is sing a song with a certain rhythm that fits that job.

SPRINGER: "Away, Rio" is one of the songs Coffin loves to sing in schools. Through songs and stories, he takes students on an imaginary whaling voyage that leaves from Nantucket.

COFFIN: They're already learning early American history in various grade levels. And they rarely talk about whaling. And whaling was the biggest industry of the time.

SPRINGER: And the whaling center of the world was on the Massachusetts coast. Coffin discovered his own history through maritime songs. Singing lead to reading about New England whaling. And when he read about Nantucket, the name Coffin kept popping up. Turns out, 11 generations back, his ancestor Tristram Coffin owned Nantucket.

COFFIN: He bought the whole bloody island for 30 pounds and two beaver hats.

SPRINGER: That was in 1659. The Coffin family learned the art of whaling from the Native Americans. And what happened next on the island? Well, there's plenty of stories and songs about that.

COFFIN: There's my family doing the things that I'm singing about.

SPRINGER: Take the song "Yankee Whalerman." It's the tale of a ship and its crew leaving Spain and bound for Massachusetts.

COFFIN: (Singing) For we received orders to sail to New England.

SPRINGER: With the tall ships in Boston Harbor, it looks the way it did during the great age of sail. And Coffin is in his element, giving tours, telling stories, singing and taking visitors back in time. For NPR News, I'm Shira Springer.

COFFIN: (Singing) Until we sight Gay Head off old Martha's Vineyard, straight up the channel to New Bedford we'll go. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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