PORTLAND, Maine — Folks started straggling into the dim, cozy and cave-like back room at Novare Res Bier Cafe around 7 p.m. on Monday.
Shaking off their coats, they found seats on a single, well-worn leather couch or atop one of the scattered high stools. Most gripped beers and chatted with neighbors.
Then, a bespectacled man in a sweater and tweed cap rose to his feet and started singing a sea shanty. When he got to the chorus, everyone joined in, whether they knew the words or not.
“When you have a song, you just sing it,” said the singer, John Radway, explaining how the monthly pub and shanty sing he organizes works. “By the end, we’ll all know it, if not, we’ll pretend.”
Radway’s song kicked off the second such get together since the pandemic halted the regular event in early 2020. Turnout for the December 2022 edition was good — great in fact — and might have been a record, Radway said.
“We have quite a crowd tonight,” he said, speaking to those assembled at the beer cafe known for its deep and rotating selection of German and Belgian brews.
More than two dozen singers, from age 7 to 80 years old were there and Radway said he hopes it’s an indication of singalongs to come.
Radway then explained how the pub and shanty sing works for those new to the scene.
The rules are simple: Everyone is welcome to come and lead a song, as long as it has a chorus the whole gang can join in singing.
“We’ve had sea shanties, of course, but also songs from Appalachia, Hank Williams tunes and songs from mid Atlantic islands I’ve never heard of,” Radway, an English teacher by trade, said. “This is where all songs come home to roost.”
The whole affair was a little like an open mic night, except there was no microphone and no audience. Songs are powered by human voices and the occasional acoustic instrument, only, and nobody is expected to sit by as a passive listener. Instead, everyone gets to help sing everything.
“Whiskey made me wear old clothes. Whiskey gave me this red nose,” sang one man.
Then the crowd joined in singing the song originally used aboard ships for getting sailors to heave on a line at the same time, “Whiskey-o, Johnny-o, riser ‘er up from down below.”
A 7-year-old girl named Gretta wearing a fancy pom-pomed winter hat led one shanty by herself. It ended with massive applause. Then she had to go. It was a school night, after all.
Then, 80-year-old folk veteran Charlie Ipcar hauled out his banjo and started another tune.
“Now I wish I was in Mobile Bay, storm along, Stormy, storm along,” Ipcar sang, with the rest of the room joining in on every second line. “Screwing cotton all the day, storm along, Stormy, storm along.”
The term “screwing cotton” refers to the 19th century practice of using screw jacks to squeeze as many cotton bales into a ship’s hold as possible.
” That one goes back to the 1840s,” Ipcar said when finished.
But, as Radway pointed out, songs didn’t have to be old to be welcome.
Kurt Kish took that to heart, whipping out a ukulele and crooning a fine rendition of The Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.”
So it went all night, with songs ping-ponging between sweet, bawdy, rousing and meditative.
One woman led a beautiful, hopeful shanty, her young son’s head resting on her shoulder.
“Row on, row on. Another day may shine with brighter light,” she sang. “Ply the oars and pull away. There’s dawn beyond the night.”
Later, Ipcar led a comic number, singing, “I saw a butterfly flutter by and a dragonfly drink a flagon dry.”
At one point, Novare Res server Marsinah Hopkins came into the room during a lull. Someone asked her if she wanted to sing one.
“I only know one Stan Rogers song,” Hopkins said. “Well, I only know the chorus, actually.”
The mere mention of the revered Canadian folksinger’s name elicited whoops of approval in the room.
“Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage to find the hand of Franklin
reaching for the Beaufort Sea,” Hopkins sang, her hands full of empty beer steins. “Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage, and make a Northwest Passage to the sea.”
By the end of her lone chorus, the air sparkled with ragged harmonies, leaving Hopkins with a broad smile.
The union hymn “Solidarity Forever,” Maine folk singer Godon Bok’s “Turning Toward the Morning,” and the old Boston chestnut “Charlie on the MTA” were also sung.
But, like a satisfying pint of beer, the night eventually had to end. Radway capped off the evening, leading the room in one last song of farewell and good health.
“This event existed before the pandemic, and then, for a while, it didn’t,” he said at the end. “But now we’re back, the first Monday of every month — forever.”