Folk tradition on a classically-inclined campus: Larry’s Privateers welcomes all aboard 

If you have ever passed by the Wriston Amphitheatre on a Sunday afternoon in the Spring or Fall Terms when the weather is nice, you may have heard the measured melodies of one of Larry’s Privateers’ (commonly referred to as Shanty Club) work songs. The group naturally meets indoors in Winter Term, but their cadence remains firm throughout the colder season. 

A typical meeting for the group is dedicated to singing together. A lyric book gets passed around, and any member who is familiar with a song teaches the melody before the whole group joins in. Vice President, or First Mate, Lawrence Schreiner explains that, while the songs they sing have a standard melody, his favorite part of singing together is that people add their own harmonies, either memorized or improvised, until some songs have up to nine or ten voice parts echoing about the amphitheater.  

Despite what the name suggests, not every tune in the club’s songbook is actually a sea shanty, which is a rather narrow category of songs whose forms, cadences and lyrics are all tailored to help synchronize a ship’s crew in their tasks. Shanty Club also embraces work songs that originated on land, non-shanty maritime music and more modern folk music.  

“We definitely do a lot of sea shanties,” President, or Captain, Silas O’Connell says, “but we call ourselves Sea Shanty Club because when people think of this sort of non-instrumental folk music, a sea shanty comes to mind.” 

Many members of  Shanty Club are musicians in other respects, but not very many are classical musicians or even Conservatory students. O’Connell appreciates Shanty Club as a place for non-Conservatory students like himself to make music in a large group setting. He notes that the club especially attracts people who gravitate toward music styles that remain un-emphasized in the Conservatory. 

In many ways, Shanty Club’s style of musicking is part of a tradition that seems far removed from the conventions of classical music. The club makes no distinctions about voice types and lacks written sheet music, relying on learning music by ear. Unlike most ensembles on campus, there is also no expectation for regular attendance and meetings are not rehearsals. Truly anyone can sing with Shanty Club, and there are even the rare occasions when a passerby joins them in song mid-meeting. 

“We have a lot of people who are musicians outside of Shanty Club, but not necessarily classical musicians,” Schreiner says. “I think we attract a lot more people who just like to sing, and they’re musicians because they’re doing music, and it’s awesome.” 

Now juniors, O’Connell and Schreiner have both been in Shanty Club since their first year. O’Connell explains that he has been part of folk music communities since childhood and had contacted Shanty Club’s then-Captain Nick Mayerson to join the roster shortly after committing to attend Lawrence. Schreiner, on the other hand, had tagged along with a friend to his first Shanty Club meeting and was drawn in hook, line and sinker to an experience that was entirely new to him. 

 Schreiner specifically remembers his first time leading a song as being unlike anything he had ever experienced before. It was a Revolutionary War-era folk tune called “Katie Cruel,” sung from the perspective of a woman who used to be beloved by all but is now only scorned by her townsfolk. The rendition Schreiner taught had a complex chorus with many nonsense words that were difficult to explain, but once the group put the song together by following his lead, he felt a sense of incredible empowerment. 

Taking on the roles of Captain and First Mate, respectively, has  given O’Connell and Schreiner the opportunity to set the course for Shanty Club’s foreseeable future. As a purely participatory musical group with no traditional performances, the club still has special events for members to look forward to outside meetings, like campus bonfires and field trips, including an upcoming visit to the Wisconsin Maritime Museum.  

Last year’s field trip was to the Midwest Morris Ale, an annual English folk dance festival. Although the club is not dance-focused, the event was still a gathering of people in the regional folk music community that allowed members to appreciate the larger tradition they are a part of, even outside of campus.  

O’Connell emphasizes that, though Shanty Club may be many people’s entry point into the American folk scene, it does not have to be the full scope of it: “This isn’t an activity that has to end with college, and so I love meeting people that are making this kind of music and dance outside of just campus life.” 

The music of Shanty Club is that of the “common people,” usually originating from laborers who had never studied music in any official capacity. As O’Connell likes to remind people, “19th-century sailors did not have vocal training, and you don’t have to either to sing with us.” 

 O’Connell felt Shanty Club really begin to come into its own as a space of folk music tradition at the beginning of last year, when he and a few other members of the club brought in original songs to teach and sing as a group. It was a special experience to see people share music that had come from within them with the larger community.  

For those who want to get involved with folk music, the club welcomes anyone to join their meetings at 4 p.m. on Sundays, plus O’Connell and Schreiner recommend listening to musicians like Windborne, The Dreadnoughts and Stan Rogers as an introduction to the folk tradition.