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 home >> educational resources >> getting started >> publications >> maritime folklife >> part 1

Documenting Maritime Folklife: An Introductory Guide

Part 1: What to Document

What to document:


Customs are similar to beliefs in that they involve verbal and nonverbal expressions that are put into play under certain circumstances. Unlike beliefs, they are not primarily concerned with assumptions that certain signs or actions will indicate or cause particular results. Customs are practices followed as a matter of course. Well-known customs are associated with holidays and festivals, as well as rites of passage such as birth, marriage, entry into an occupation, retirement, and death. Frequently, important events include a variety of customary practices. Weddings, for example, feature such things as traditional vows, music, clothing, rice throwing, food, drink, toasts, dancing, bouquet and garter tossing, and car "sabotaging." These customs are arranged in a specific order that is well known to everyone in the community.

Many customs are unique to maritime communities, although some are carried on in connection with major holidays. In several of Maine's coastal communities, lobster boat races, rowboat races, and the sale of seafood prepared in a traditional manner are key elements of annual Fourth of July celebrations. At Easter time in many coastal regions of the country, local clergymen bless boats and their crews as they pass by in a procession. Community-based seafood festivals also include many customs. In the town of Apalachicola, Florida, site of one of the nation's most productive oyster fisheries, an annual festival is held to celebrate local maritime heritage. Inaugurated in 1915, the festival includes such events as the crowning of King Retsyo ("oyster" spelled backwards), a blessing of the fleet, an oyster-shucking contest, an oyster- eating contest, crab races, and the sale of local seafood.

Customs related to death also have maritime correlatives. They include memorial services held at sea for fishermen lost there, and tombstones that display engravings of boats, anchors, and other nautical objects.

Finally, there are remedies for sickness, especially seasickness, and injury. For many commercial fishermen, wounds caused by sharp fish fins are a constant hazard. The following is a description of a method used by some fishermen to ease the pain caused by such injuries:

Take a penny and wrap it in a piece of bacon and put it on [the wound]. And whether it be a nail or a catfish puncture, . . . you will not believe what it will do . . . . I've personally, a number of times, took the penny and a slice of bacon about this big and put the penny inside of it, and just fold it over, put it right to the puncture wound. And you will not believe. The next day it's like nothing ever happened to you.1


1. Interview with John Gavagan of Neptune Beach, Florida, recorded July 26, 1986, by David Taylor.


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   May 15, 2015
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