May-June 2007


The Nautical Trail of Pint and Dale


By Audrey Coleman

Call them folk singers or perhaps sea song gypsies. William Pint and Felicia Dale travel the country, singing seafaring songs at gigs such as the Renaissance Faire here in Southern California and the Mystic Seaport Festival in Connecticut. Their 2003 Dodge Sprinter is outfitted with camping gear for all weather. Their constant travel companion, parrot Ranzo, whose name appears in many a sea shanty, belts out "There's a good bird!" and imitates the sounds of cell phones to amuse them. Together 21 years now, Pint, 53 and Dale, 49, cross the salt seas regularly to perform in England and throughout Europe in pubs and folk clubs and at sea music festivals. In concert, they definitely seem touched by the maritime folk music muse - Pint with his stubbly beard and robust baritone, Dale cradling a hurdy-gurdy, her delicate features framed by flowing dark hair threaded with silver strands.

Photo of PINT and DALE
William Pint and Felicia Dale

What? You're not on the sea music circuit? Check out this conversation that I, Audrey Coleman, FolkWorks feature writer, had with Pint and Dale and find out what you've been missing.

AC: How did you discover the music of the sea, William?

PINT: Through the Irish folk music door. One of the bands that I'd been in was a British Isles trio and we did a lot of those kinds of songs. If you do many British Isles songs, eventually you're going to run into sea songs. I thought they were really interesting and that it was a generally ignored style of music, this body of material. Anybody who was doing it was doing the same five or six songs-like What do you do with a Drunken Sailor and Haul away, Joe. And it turns out there are hundreds and hundreds of songs.

DALE: Huge repertoire.

PINT: And also, as you start singing these songs and going to sea music festivals in San Francisco and Mystic Seaport, you start bumping elbows with people like Louis Killen. So you're constantly exposed to more songs because other people that have the same interest are doing the same thing and looking for obscure things to share with their friends, you know, really cool songs.

AC: So you learn some songs at festivals. Do you ever go into libraries, dig into archives?

PINT: Sometimes. Books by people like Stan Hugill (www.stanhugill.com) are a treasure trove.

AC: I know there are shanty song groups where a lot of trading goes on. We have one that meets here in San Pedro every month.

PINT: We just spent some time in the Washington DC area and we were impressed. There are at least four monthly sea shanty song sessions. It works out that there's one every week. And you see the same faces coming back.

DALE: And all levels from people who never sang a shanty to people who've been doing it for years and have their song book put together.

PINT: Everybody has a great time.

AC: Has the Internet changed anything in terms of the exchanges you do?

DALE: Oh, it's fascinating.

PINT: There's an on-line database of traditional or close-to-traditional folksongs. They have thousands of lyrics and almost as many tunes that you can actually play on-line. They're posted by this thing called Mudcat Café (www.mudcat.org) which does on-line discussions of a zillion different folk music titles. And we always find threads of discussions on sea songs, sea shanties, C. Fox-Smith, what sea music festival is coming up, who's going to be at Mystic this year-

DALE: Arguments about which set of lyrics (for a given song) is more authentic.

PINT: Yeah, so I think the Internet's made a big difference getting people in touch.

AC: And Felicia, you're the daughter of a sea captain.

DALE: Yeah, I really am.

AC: Did this influence how you carved your musical niche?

DALE: No. William was already doing sea music before he met me. I grew up by the salt water and we sailed a lot on boats, which is true, but I never even heard of sea shanties until I met William. I just love doing them and it was wonderful having that background. My dad certainly enjoyed the songs a great deal. He thought it was wonderful what I was doing.

AC: What kind of boat did he captain?

DALE: He was on a number of different ships, but he was finally working for American President Lines and he was captain on their container ships for year...He was always involved with ships from the time he could run away from home.

AC: How did that affect your lifestyle?

DALE: He was a ship's captain and for him to be home on land was really hard for him. He would want things to run the way they did on the ship. He would say, "Jump!" and you would say "How high?" But he was a very intelligent and thoughtful person who loved music. We always had music in the house. And I had piano lessons, and guitar lessons, and fiddle lessons. We would go sailing every summer and I got really spoiled. He was a brilliant sailor.

AC: Did he share seafaring songs with you?

DALE: (Not songs, exactly.) Actually, my dad lived on a boat for a long time and occasionally he'd bring stuff he just didn't want to keep on the boat for one reason or another. So he brought by boxes of books and one day William pulls out this book of poetry. Fantastic stuff! Absolutely some of the best nautical poetry we've ever read. And we'd never even heard of this person. At the same time in England there was a huge resurgence of interest in this writer. It made a ton of connections for us.

PINT: His name was C. Fox Smith. We started taking some of these poems that really sounded "song-like," and started looking for tunes that would work with this set of lyrics or that set of lyrics.

DALE: And it wasn't ooey-gooey either. It's just this accurate-

PINT: Because a lot of the poetry in that period (the 19th century) was flowery.

AC: C. Fox Smith or Seafox Smith?

DALE: C. Fox. Really her name was Cicely.

AC: Her?

DALE: She was a schoolteacher and she wrote children's books. She's a fabulous writer.

PINT: And she'd spent a lot of time on board sailing ships. That's just one example of how we run into material.

DALE: And once people know you're interested, they send you things. We don't actually write lyrics ourselves.

AC: Do you compose tunes?

PINT: Sometimes. In situations like that when there's a good set of lyrics, sometimes I'll come up with an original melody for it.

AC: Once people are exposed to seafaring songs and sea shanties, they really are drawn to them, aren't they? Even though some of the language is foreign. I mean, how many of us know the meaning of halyard or forecastle or topsail?

PINT: I think it's because for many of those songs, the technical language is on the surface layer. What's really captivating is below the surface. It's the themes of those songs that are common to people whether they've ever set foot on a ship or not. Relationships. People that are separated by great distance over long periods of time. People that are lost in disasters.

DALE: Hungry. Cold. Wet. The work's too hard. The girls are in love with you.

AC: There's an incredible vitality to the songs.

DALE: They're very raw. Simple structures, repetitive lines and simple melodies...

PINT: It's a concentrated dose of the folk tradition and the folk process. You'll get this particular song and you get a crew of guys and somebody's got this song and in a voyage of a year that song could change radically by what happened on that particular voyage, the people in authority, the interest of the crew, or just faulty memory. A song could be really different by the time it stepped off the ship; And then you had all these different mixtures of crews. All these different ethnic groups and cultures thrown together into a melting pot. That's got to affect how the songs get sung. If the guy who brings it on board is an Irish guy and the guy who takes it off to another ship is Jamaican, that song is going to change in many ways. I think it's an interesting process.

DALE: And that's why we feel just fine about putting instruments behind them and arranging the heck out of some of the songs.

PINT: There were some instruments on ships. They had banjos, fiddles, hammer-dulcimers, accordions...

DALE: But you wouldn't be hauling on a line and playing along.

PINT: Shanties were not accompanied.

DALE: And it wasn't as if you hauled on the line until the song was done. But we emphasize the song aspect rather than the work aspect because were standing on a stage.

PINT: And there are plenty of people who do shanties in very traditional ways in performance. That is being taken care of so we have license to play with the songs and spin them a little bit, to explore the musical qualities of the song and not just the historical work song essence of it.

AC: Tell us about the instruments you work in.

PINT: The easy ones are the ones I play - guitar and mandolin. Felicia has the exotic sound.

DALE: I play the hurdy-gurdy...

AC: Why the hurdy-gurdy?

DALE: Some people have a drone gene and others don't, and I definitely do. I've always liked the sound of bagpipes. Fan noises - I always sing along. For some reason, I just love that drone that can happen. So the hurdy-gurdy was the best of both worlds. You've got the drone and the fiddle without all the problems of intonation. It just really opened music up for me in amazing ways. I love playing it.

AC: You sing in French sometimes and I understand that your mother is French, Felicia. Do you find many French seafaring songs?

DALE: There are tons of French sea shanties--

PINT: And German--

DALE: Polish, Estonian.

PINT: We've picked them up in the different countries we've visited.

DALE: Even landlocked ones have sea shanties because a lot of those guys went away to sea, too. So, off they went and they learned Haul away, Joe in Romanian or something.

PINT: There was a huge sea shanty scene in Poland in the late eighties and early nineties.

AC: And these were shanties originally in Polish?

PINT: There were but they also adopted some of the British songs and translated them into Polish. We played at a festival or two there a little after the peak of it.

DALE: Thousands of people singing a long. And they really know how to party in Poland.

PINT: Talk about going to festivals and meeting musicians, we went to a sea festival in Holland and that had a whole international collection of artists. And we ended up getting invited to a festival in Estonia.

AC: Tell me about your upcoming CD.

PINT: The new CD is called The Set of the Sail and the actual release date will be determined by Waterbug Records.

DALE: Like most of our recordings, it's a collection of nautically themed songs - some traditional and some contemporary - that we've collected over the last few years. Most of them have a connection with England in some way. We've spent a lot of time there over the last few years and some of the songs were gathered at sea music festivals like Sea Fever in Hull on the north east coast near the mouth of the Humber River.

PINT: I think this CD has a lighter tone compared to the last one, Seven Seas. Looking back, I think that Seven Seas was a reflection of the difficult, depressing years following 9/11 and the Bush Administration's wars. It seems like every song was about death and disaster. The Set of the Sail is more upbeat and positive.

DALE: The hurdy-gurdy has a larger role in this collection as well-a few more tunes with lots of gurdies piled up with harmonies.

AC: I'm looking forward to hearing it. How are the gigs lining up?

PINT: We're at the Renaissance Faire in Irwindale April 28 and 29 and there's been some talk of a house concert in the Joshua Tree area and possibly one near Fallbrook late April or early May.

PINT: In England we have an agent and so we go there every year. They have lots and lots of folk clubs, summer folk festivals, and some that are specifically nautical. The Liverpool Shanty Festival or the Hull Sea Fever Festival. In the States it's left to us and it's much more haphazard.

DALE: I'm terrible at the phone so poor William gets saddled with most of it.

PINT: We've been doing it long enough that we do get calls from people. Like in Dana Point we did the Tall Ships Festival. Then we meet people there who want us to do a house concert or something else.

DALE: And we get calls from people who've found us on the website.

PINT: There are a lot of festivals on the Eastern seaboard so we'll stay around there for a while. We travel a lot.

AC: Sounds like you follow your bliss.

PINT: We enjoy what we're doing. We make great friends wherever we go.

DALE: And folk music has the highest quality of people in it. They may be strange but they're good and kind and generous and friendly.

AC: You're based in Seattle?

DALE: That's where I was born and pretty much grew up in the area. My Mom still lives there, so her house is our permanent address. Here's an odd little connection: When I was growing up, we babysat a piano for a local restaurateur and we all took piano lessons. My mom played it, my sister played it, sometimes our cat played it. I practiced on that piano for years. Finally, he took back the piano and put it in his pub. Well, William's band used to play in that pub and. William sometimes would set his beer on that piano! Isn't that great?

Pint and Dale's latest CD is The Set of the Sail distributed by Waterbug Records. Favorite picks of AC include Seven Seas (2004) and Hearts of Gold (1994). For more information, check out the Pint and Dale website www.pintndale.com.