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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:

Oral Traditions

Oral traditions include jokes, riddles, rhymes, legends, songs, and stories, as well as non-narrative forms such as jargon, regional speech, and local place names. Often these expressions can be distinguished from normal discourse on the basis of certain verbal clues, or "markers," that announce the beginning of an oral performance. For example, the phrase "that reminds me about the one about . . ." suggests that a joke is about to be told. "As the old people used to say . . ." may herald a proverb. Tall tales, on the other hand, may not be identifiable at first, but gradually define themselves as the teller begins to exaggerate. John Gavagan of Atlantic Beach, Florida, relates a brief tall tale:

[My friend] told me that he remembered when there wasn't any mullet. He said there was a big drought about fishing and the beach fishermen stayed there [on the beach] all winter and [got] nothing whatsoever. They would actually go in their boats and go looking [for fish]. He said that they saw a fire one night on the very far end of the little jetties. And they pulled in there to see maybe if they were catching something. And [they] saw that there were two porpoises there roasting a possum. That's how bad the fishing was. You know that's bad.1

Sometimes an oral performance can be very brief and can occur with no warning at all. In the following interchange, the interviewer falls for the humorous and clever trap set by Mayport, Florida, net maker and former shrimper Martin Cooper:

Interviewer: What's the most important part of [catching shrimp]?

Cooper: The most important part is, I'll explain it to you this way. The shrimping operation starts at the bow stem of a boat and it ends where you tie the cod end. If anything goes wrong in between any of them places it affects your shrimping. And, ah, but the most important thing, getting back to your question. What is the thing that holds the steering wheel on? You know, that, what's that little thing you screw on behind the steering wheel to hold it on?

Interviewer: A nut or something?

Cooper: That's right, the nut behind the wheel is the most important thing.2

Personal-experience stories and legends are other narrative forms. Personal experience stories are stories that recount especially dramatic episodes in people's lives. Turning an account of an experience into art, the storyteller frames it with a beginning, middle and end, and peoples it with a cast of characters.

Captain Eddie Baker of Mayport, Florida, a retired shrimp fisherman, relates the following personal-experience story about a close call:

Baker: I've got in trouble in a storm. I got caught down on the beach here in a storm when everybody [else] went with the weather, and I figured I could have beat [against] the weather to St. Augustine. And it took me, well, it took me nineteen hours.

Interviewer: Going right into the wind?

Baker: Going into the wind. And I had to slow down, and something tell me, "You slow it down." And I slowed the boat down. And then, the boy right there said, "Captain, you got the boat full of water." I said, "It is?" I said, "Ease the anchor overboard." And he got down in the hold, and all the trash, all the trash [had] got in the pump. And [he had to] clean it out . . . . I let the engine run, and he pumped it out. We got the anchor up, and we made it on to St. Augustine. We got to St. Augustine, and he said, "Captain, you can't go in there." And I said, "You do like I tell you to do." I say, "I'm not up here by myself." And I set the compass and went straight in [to] the bar with two other fellow's boats behind me. And I got on in [by] the bar, and they said, "Hey, you going to Augustine?" And I said, "No, I'm going on home." I come up through the inside [passage], come on in to Mayport. And I got inside, and I said, "Thank you, Jesus."3

Legends are narratives, supposedly based on fact, that are told about persons, places, or events. For example, in the adjacent fishing communities of Beals and Jonesport, Maine, legends about fisherman Barney Beal are well known. Beal was a giant of a man and the stories about him invariably focus on his tremendous strength. As the stories were passed on to newer generations in the years since Beals's death in 1899, actual events have been embellished and new stories created. In 1956, folklorist Richard Dorson collected this story about from one of Beals's grandsons:

Dorson: Now, you were telling me a very interesting account of the time the bully of Peak's Island challenged him to a fight.

Esten Beal: Yes, I've heard that story told many a time, that he went into Peak's Island to get water for his fishing vessel. And the bully of Peak's Island met him on the beach and challenged him to a fight. So he told him that as soon as he filled his water barrel why he would accommodate him. So he went and filled his water barrel. And they used to use these large molasses tierces for water barrels. So he brought the water barrel down on the beach, and he said, "Well," he said, "I guess before we start, I'll have a drink of water." So he picked up the water barrel and took a drink out of the bunghole, set it down on the beach, and the bully of Peak's Island walked up, slapped him on the shoulder, and says, "Mr. Beal, I don't think I'll have anything to do with you whatever."4

Oral traditions common to maritime communities include legends about buried treasure, how an individual met his death at sea, and how an island, or some other feature of the landscape, acquired its name. Tall tales are frequently told about large or unusual catches of fish, bad weather, and feats of strength. Personal- experience stories abound and are often concerned with such topics as the biggest catch ever made, the strangest catch ever made, and the closest encounter with death on the water.

The vernacular names used for familiar things such as fish, plants, birds, cloud forms, boats, and gear are important elements of traditional knowledge that are expressed orally. While identical terms are sometimes used in different communities, there is generally a good deal of regional variation as well. For example, the end of a trawl net is usually called the "cod end" by New England fishermen, while in the Southeast it is often called the "tail bag." And, not surprisingly, things found only within relatively small geographic regions, including unique boat types or species of fish or birds, possess traditional names unknown outside the region. An example is the "bird dog" boat, an open, inshore fishing craft used along the Gulf Coast of Florida. In many communities, residents follow traditional rules for giving formal names to individual boats. For example, in a large number of fishing towns it is customary to name a boat after the owner's wife, child, or some other close relative.

Some Traditional Names for Oysters in Apalachicola, Florida

  • Burr: a cluster of oysters.
  • Coon: an oyster that grows close to the shore, so close that raccoons can gather it.
  • Cup: an oyster with a rounded, cup-like shape.
  • Scissor: an oyster with a long, narrow shell.
  • Select: a single oyster of marketable size not attached to another oyster or to any foreign matter.

The use of distinctive words and phrases also constitutes traditional knowledge expressed orally. In many Florida fishing communities, it is common to hear fishermen use such regionally distinctive words as "hang" (an underwater obstruction), "kicker" (an outboard motor), and "lick" (a pass over fishing grounds with a net or other gear).

Nearly every maritime occupation has its own jargon of words and phrases, seldom known outside of the occupation, that label fishing gear, tools, procedures, and occupational roles.

Place names are of great significance, especially traditional names for fishing grounds. If these names have been in use long enough, they sometimes become recognized as "official" names and are used on charts. Many, however, are known only by fishermen. Other important names identify local landmarks used for lining up courses and for judging distances along the shore. Names that shrimpers use for landmarks south of Mayport, Florida, followed by the features from which the names were derived, include:

  • "Crazy House": a shoreside house built to an unorthodox design.
  • "Golf Ball": a water tower shaped like an enormous golf ball.
  • "The Road": a dirt road running perpendicular to the shore.
  • "Three Houses": a cluster of three houses. Interestingly, place names like these sometimes continue to be used after the original landmarks have disappeared.

Song is another category of oral expression, and songs with maritime themes or songs performed within the contexts of maritime occupations are sometimes encountered. In the past, songs about the sea and worksongs sung to facilitate certain tasks figured prominently in the lives of seamen and other inhabitants of coastal communities. Today, largely because of technological change in maritime occupations, and the spread of popular music through electronic media, these expressions are less common. For example, with the advent of engines to haul anchors and nets, the need to sing songs that helped concentrate group labor was eliminated. And in most oyster houses, popular music broadcast from a radio has replaced the singing of songs by shuckers, songs sung to reduce the monotony of the work.5 But residents of maritime communities still compose songs that reflect ties to maritime heritage and associated values. Take, for example, the song "Oyster Man Blues," written by Mack Novak, a native of Eastpoint, Florida.

"Oyster Man Blues"
by Mack Novak

Now, this is going to be a quick story in oystering in which you have to go out and separate the little oysters from the big oysters so you won't get a ticket. And it goes something like this:

Their day it starts at 5 A.M.---they hit the bar.
They've got their Maxwell House Coffee in a Bama Mayonnaise jar.
Out goes the anchor, and then over go the tongs.
At 10 A.M. they're saying, "Oh, Lord, where did I go wrong?"

He's got those oysterman's blues.
He can't afford a pair of shoes.
His hickory sticks, well, they're slapping out a tune.
And it's called those oysterman's blues.

When he tongs up those oysters, then he throws them on the deck,
He reaches over to his wife and he gives her a little peck.
Then he hands her a glove and a cull iron,
And says, "Honey, separate these things 'cause I sure am tired.

I've got those oysterman's blues.
I can't afford a pair of shoes.
My hickory sticks, well, they're slapping out a tune
And it's called those oysterman's blues.

[Instrumental Break]

He comes in from the bar expecting to go home,
but there's a grouper trooper on the dock in his grey uniform.
He pulls out his oyster ruler and he goes to work.
When the count is 35 percent, he says, "Hey, you're out of luck."

You've got those oysterman's blues.
You can't afford a pair of shoes.
Your hickory sticks, I'll bet they're slapping out a tune.
And I'll bet it's called those oysterman's blues.

Yeah, it's called those oysterman's blues.6

This song is noteworthy because, in addition to choosing the most distinctive fishery of the Apalachicola Bay region as its theme, it describes oystering from an insider's perspective. It depicts a typical day of oystering, using occupational jargon such as "hickory sticks" (wooden oyster tongs), "cull iron" (metal tool used to bang apart oysters that have formed clumps), "grouper trooper" (state fisheries patrol officer), and "oyster ruler" (measuring device used to determine if oysters are of legal size). Songs like "Oysterman's Blues" can provide researchers with valuable clues to the way insiders conceptualize the process of work, and can help illuminate the values that are important to fishermen, their families, and other residents of their communities.7


1. Interview with John Gavagan of Neptune Beach, Florida, recorded July 26, 1986, by David Taylor. This tape recorded interview is on deposit at the Florida Folklife Archives, Bureau of Florida Folklife Programs, White Springs, Florida.

2. Interview with net maker Martin Cooper of Mayport, Florida, recorded July 27, 1984, by David Taylor. Florida Folklife Archives accession number C-86-198.

3. Interview with retired shrimp fisherman Eddie Baker of Mayport, Florida, recorded July 16, 1986, by David Taylor. Tape recorded interview on deposit at the Florida Folklife Archives, White Springs, Florida.

For a fine compilation of personal experience narratives concerned with a maritime occupation, see: Timothy C. Lloyd and Patrick B. Mullen, Lake Erie Fishermen: Work, Tradition, and Identity (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990).

4. Richard Dorson, Buying the Wind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 50-1. For other stories about Beal, see: Velton Peabody, Tall Barney: The Giant of Beals Island (Williamsville, N.Y.: Periwinkle Press, 1975).

5. In shucking houses where the use of electric shucking machines has replaced shucking by hand, the noise level created by the machines is so high that singing is virtually unintelligible. In such contexts, shuckers often listen to a radio that broadcasts music throughout the room, or to personal radios or cassette players they listen to through headphones.

Singing by oyster shuckers is discussed by Johnson in her article "'Sloppy Work for Women': Shucking Oysters on the Patuxent," 49-51.

6. Mack Novak, "Oysterman's Blues," St. George Sound Records CSS-152, 1978. 45 r.p.m. disk recording. Copyright Mack Novak, reprinted with permission.

7. For a more detailed discussion, see: David A. Taylor, "Songs About Fishing: Examples of Contemporary Maritime Songs," Canadian Folklore Canadien, 12 no. 2 (1990): 85-99.


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