Category Archives: mariners

Sea of Ale and the Dock Street Mermaid

The following post was reposted from I found myself retelling a bit of this story a few times in the past weekend, and I felt this was personal enough that it should be reposted here.


Back in nineteen-eighty-seven I was at the Westbrook Muster. While there I bought my first fife and drum recording. It was a white cassette of the first Mariner album, which had been released seven years prior. It was one of the few Westbrook Musters where I couldn’t wait for the weekend to end. I desperately wanted to hear what was on that tape, and to do so required making the trek back home where my boom box sat waiting for me in my Massachusetts living room.

The tunes started to roll, White Cockade, Adams and York, and Sailors Hornpipe. I was immediately drawn in. I was then seduced by the singing of Ruben Ranzo and the seamless transition to Clapboard Hill. All of it great and exuberant, but fully within the boundaries of what I had expected. I had, after all, been watching those barefooted bastions of sea music from the time I was a little boy and attending Sudbury Musters in the mid seventies. But, just as side one was coming to a close, the boundaries had been breeched.

Suddenly, from my crappy little speakers, came classical music fused with a complex matrix of fifes spinning around tunes that felt traditional, but not structured like other tunes I had learned. There were too many fifes for me to track and I went into a dizzy trance as the music moved from one tune to the next; a beautiful melodic waltz; a single fife sliding into a slip jig with the others soon in tow; tempo changes; slower; faster; reels; jigs; breaks; ornaments; teases; and something wild on the end that didn’t make any logical sense but seemed like the only way to end. I clawed for the liner notes, praying to God it wasn’t going to have some lame title like Sonata in D. It was…it was…The Sea of Ale and the Dock Street Mermaid. Miraculous!

I never made it to side two. I never made it back to the beginning of side one. I only used two buttons on the boom box; rewind; play; rewind; play; rewind; play.

Suddenly a new thought fell into my teenaged brain. I was going to join the Mariners. It had never even been a passing thought until that moment. But, now it seemed so clear. I would join, and soon I would be playing such masterpieces.

Not long after, 1988 to be precise, I went to my first Ancient Mariner practice along with my buddy Roger Hunnewell. But, what I found was that the Sea of Ale was nowhere to be found. It was a complex piece of music that nobody, in 1988, new how to play, and nobody could located the sheet music. What I subsequently learned, was that the music was complex enough that the Mariners needed to bring in a ringer for the recording. Alan Reed, the only non-Mariner to play on the Mariner album, was brought in to play one of the four voices on The Sea of Ale along with John Ciaglia, John Benoit and Skip Healy. Incidentally, none of those guys were still active in 1988 either. So, the road to The Sea of Ale looked bleak.

Through the decades there were efforts to pull the music together. Jason Malli, most notably, was able to find some badly damaged copies of the original Ciaglia chicken scratch. We leaned that The Sea of Ale was actually two different medleys glued together for the recording. The Admiral of the Narrow Seas and another called Get Off Your Ass. We also learned that it had never been performed live, thought I’m sure that statement will be hotly debated. We also learned that the original masters of the recording have gone missing. Maybe they will show up someday.
Work was started to diligently transcribe and edit the music from the hard-to-read copies into a clean, workable format. Then the newly transcribed music, all seventeen pages, sat for another decade, waiting for the right moment and the right men, with the right amount and right mix of energy. I’m happy to tell you that twenty four years after I first heard The Sea of Ale and the Dock Street Mermaid, the music has been brought back to life, performed first on a grand stage in Basel, Switzerland. For four and a half minutes Scott Redfield, Joe Mawn, Marc Bernier, Eric Chomka and myself had the honor to play this great music with Skip Healy in what felt like a passing of the torch.
For me the circle is now complete, and in my mind I keep hitting those buttons; play; rewind; play; rewind; play; rewind.

Mariner Week

A lot of folks have been asking why I’ve not posted about Mariner Week. Well, I have, just not here. I’ve started and will continue to post over at

In short, the week was great. Here is a photo of me mugging with a Fasnacht mask after all the festivities and just before getting into my Jeep to leave the Deep River Muster. Although I was smiling, it really was a sad moment.

Just to whet your appetite about I’ve included one recording here from my week with the Mariners. This is a set of two tunes called In the Back Seat and McGowan’s Motorcar. Both these tunes were written by the founder of the Mariners, Roy Watrous. Joe, myself and a few others had planned on performing it at the Mariner Muster, but when it came time to play it, the announcer skipped right past the piece. Oh well.

This recording is at Dan’s Firehouse late one evening. Joe and I played it for our Swiss friends since they never got to hear it during our concert.

In The Back Seat / McGowans Motorcar by baconworks

Memories of Westbrook

The Mariners at Westbrook
From top to bottom this past weekend was one of the best Westbrook Musters I can recall. The weather was beautiful, the music was a blast and the company was great. Here are just a few highlights for me. Feel free to reply with your own.

  • Deb, it’s so nice to see April again.
  • John E. Boy, thanks for the interpretive Irish step dancing.
  • Alan, that spider nearly killed you, glad I could save your life
  • Dan, if ever you need any attire correction in the future, you can count on me. Besides I don’t want you to embarrass the rest of us
  • Beave, good man on ye ol’ goat skins. I guess we’ll have to continue carrying the Gary & Ralph torch since there are no others.
  • Richard Benoit, nice chatting and playing tunes with you. I’ll be sending some music your way.
  • Katie, you are sooo grass roots. Thanks for advertising our session before I knew we were having one. Also, thanks for making me feel good about B minor.
  • To those two girls from Delmar who said they were going to go find Wi-Fi so they could check out my web site … you girls rock!
  • Tim, impressive flute playing. Glad I could convince you to play one more tune.
  • Bosse, I can’t believe you played Shenandoah in F! Cool. You’ve come a long way in a short time.
  • Deirdra, mighty whistle playing. With a little more practice, you should be able to get those tunes up to speed  ; )
  • Jeff, glad you found us.
  • Craig, ninety seven versus of The Humors of Whiskey and I could see the finish line for the first time in three years. But, once again, defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory. Someone has to take the blame.
  • Mountain, you should play that Em tune like nine times through. Good shtuff.
  • Kate, bring your pipes to Sudbury, we’re putting you on tape.
  • Tish, your fifing rules.
  • Biscuits, you would have been proud.
  • McGraw, you know how to make ’em. Thanks for bringing them down. I’m so happy you all came. It was the best part of my day.
  • Max, I know you can’t read, but Happy Birthday my little punky pirate.
  • Sudbury and the Troopers, Great performances. Thanks so much for playing my tunes.
  • Rachael, thanks for starting Blackwater Tide in the jam. I guess I should re-learn it now.
  • The only downer of the weekend was that Mr. Dukes and The Salad Queen did not make an appearance. I hope you guys show up at Sudbury because my fans hate it when you’re not there.
  • finally I’ll leave you with Eighteen fifes, Six snare, Six bass, Eight flags, Three gunners, Two prisoner handlers, One prisoner, One musketeer, One Jeff, One Commode and, apparently, a fair young maiden. Boom.

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Mariners start a blog…

finger pointing
Blogging here about the Mariners and, more specifically, our follies in Switzerland has been quite enjoyable. I’ve received some great, and sometimes funny, feedback via comments, emails and in person about the ‘We Are the Mariner‘ series. One fellow even told me that he can’t read my blog anymore because I made him cry. Sorry about that one.

Also, there is a strong interest with other Mariners, both here and abroad, to share more stories with you as they unfold and to unearth stories from the past. Therefore, I am excited to announce a new blog where The Mariners can continue to chronicle their adventures.


Please take some time to check it out. We look forward to seeing you there and we’ll do our best to write things that won’t make you cry.

We Are the Mariners – Let the Good Times Ring

Music is many things to many people. For some it is relaxing, others energizing. For some it is therapy and some healing.

I know of one man where music was his lifeline. It was the strand that connected him to the living. Though it may sound like hyperbole, it is not. Music was the needle that wove together a tapestry of friendship and love that buoyed him and actually kept him alive. This man, this Mariner, was diagnosed with ALS and given only a short period to live.
ALS is a horrible disease where if you don’t die quickly, you gradually lose the ability to move. You notice that your arms are shaky when you pour a glass of milk. You get tired walking to the mailbox. Putting on your own cloths becomes difficult . Tasks like brushing your own teeth become impossible. Eventually you find yourself entirely paralyzed, unable to talk and locked inside your own body. The sick irony is that you are entirely aware of your demise. ALS does not affect your brain, it affects your neuromuscular system, leaving you to contemplate all the things you would like to do but can’t.

My friend, Howard, upon being diagnosed with ALS and well aware of his fate, realized he had a decision to make. Before he would lose his ability to take matters in his own hands he had to decide if he wanted to live through the torture. So, one evening, when no one was home, he went out to the barn. Locked all the doors. He got into the car. He put the key into the ignition. He sat there. Thinking. What will I have to live for? How will I find any happiness? How much of a burden will I be to the people I love?

As he sat there contemplating his options his mind wandered back to an old friend. He heard this friend say to him, ‘You have two choices. You can choose to live, or you can choose to die. If I had half your ability and determination, I’d choose to live. This could be the greatest adventure of your life!’ Howard then took the keys and removed them from the ignition. He got out of the car. Unlocked the doors, went back into his home and lived happily ever after.

There were no medical miracles. His body ultimately failed him and he lived entirely paralyzed for years, physically paralyzed that is. But, the part about living happily I believe to be true. He found happiness in his friends. He found happiness in his children, and he found happiness in his music.

Howard was a fifer, a chanteyman and was learning to play the concertina. When he could no longer play the fife, he sang. When he could no longer sing he wrote. He wrote harmony parts for the Ancient Mariner Chanteymen. He wrote songs. He wrote poetry. He wrote a book. He did not write using his hands, they had long since failed him. He wrote by using a computer that read his eye movements, the only muscle control he had.

In doing so, all of us who new him, learned so much about living life with all you’ve got, and making the choice to be happy.

You may ask, ‘what does any of this have to do with Switzerland?’ It has to do with the lessons we learned from Howard, who was, years ago, freed from his shackles. It has to do with how we share those lessons with new Mariners everywhere. It has to do with the music he left for us in hopes that we would always sing it together. When we play and sing, we are sharing our love for music, brotherhood and the celebration of life with all those who care to listen or dare to join us. In Switzerland, they came to listen and that reaffirms, for us, all the lessons we’ve been taught by men like Howard. We all have to make choices. Our choice, as Mariners, is to do our best to celebrate while we can.

Take a listen to the words and music that Howard left for us, recorded back in 2007 in Switzerland.

So before our time is nigh
Teach our children how to sing
So they may raise their glasses high
And let the good times ring
~Dr. Howard Hornstein

We Are the Mariners – Bonhomme Richard

In the early nineties, when I was fairly new to the Mariners, I decided that I wanted to write a medley. I had already played once at the Roman amphitheater in Augusta Raurica in 1990, didn’t think we were very good, and decided that for our trip back to Switzerland in 1994 we needed some new music. So, I began work on what would become known as Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis.
Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis
I was in college at the time and did most of my writing in the car. I worked as a calzone delivery guy and spend hours driving around campus. In between deliveries, I would work out a few notes at a time then drive with my knees and play the penny whistle on my way to the next stop. It took months but ultimately I ended up with a medley that was a mix between traditional sea chanteys and original tunes.

The medley was welcomed into the Ancient Mariner repertoire and has remained their ever since, which, as I’ve learned over the years, is not typically the course for new music. The Swiss Mariners, on the other hand, were originally much less eager to learn it. However, after hearing it again in 2004 they had newfound interest in the piece.
The Mariners
After thirteen years, and for the first time ever, the Ancient Mariners and the Swiss Mariners played Bonhomme Richard together, thus solidifying its place in the Mariner repertoire. It is the one contribution to the corps that I am most proud of. The icing on the cake is that everyone seems to really enjoy playing it.
Sunny Augst
So, a heartfelt thanks goes out to my Swiss friends. Standing with you and performing this together was a real highlight, not only of the trip, but of all my Mariner days. Thanks.

We Are the Mariners – Wettsteinmarsch

Swiss Drum
People often wonder why we travel all the way to Switzerland to play music. Incredibly, Switzerland, and I am speaking most specifically about Basel, has an amazingly rich tradition of piccolo and snare drum, which can be seen annually in their colorful festival called Fasnacht.
To an outsider the music may seem similar to American fife and drum. The literature, style and instruments, however, are all different. They are different sort of like how jazz is different from the rock’n roll. Throw a rock guitarist into a jazz band and without the proper experience he will likely flounder. Yet, there are enough similarities that will make the jazz-rock crossover intriguing. The same is true for American fife and drum and Basel piccolo and drum.

In addition, just about everyone I’ve met in Basel plays either the drum or piccolo. It is serious business. Consequently, many people from Basel are interested in hearing American fife and drum music. As a result, American fife and drum corps have been sprouting up in Switzerland over the last couple of decades. Likewise, we love to hear their style of music.

Fortunately for me, there was a piccolo and drum band, or clique, performing on the evening of our arrival. Incidentally, one of their piccolo players is also a member of the Swiss Mariners. So, the first bit of music I heard in Switzerland was actually Basel style music. It was a nice way to start the trip. The final piece the clique played is called the Wettsteinmarsch, which is a very well known tune in Basel, named after one of the main city bridges that crosses the Rhine. If you listen closely you will notice that they do not have bass drums, as they are not part of their tradition. Instead, you will notice, their snare style shifts abruptly between very soft and very loud much more so than our style of drumming. Also, I love hearing the high piccolo harmony that plays above the melody. Our American fifing very rarely has harmonizes in such a way.

So, the recording that I captured here is of the clique named 1884, which is an offshoot of another famous clique named VKB.

Let me warn you; I took some liberties with this recording. Hours after we heard the Swiss perform, the Mariners were in the Baggenstos cleaning their mugs with beer. My buddy Joe thought it would be a good idea to play the Wettsteinmarsch. Problem is, he does not know how to play it. So, as an intro to the Swiss playing on their native instruments, I’ve merged in the results of Joe’s attempt at playing this Swiss classic for our Swiss friends. I love how relentless the Swiss drummers are here. Joe played all of eight notes and the drummers jumped on his lead and continued on without him and, ultimately, the entire Baggenstos continued without him. What fun.

Wettsteinmarsch by baconworks

We Are the Mariners – Sali Zaemme

Augst Concert
Hello everyone…or as they like to say in Basel, ‘Sali zaemme’. As the Mariners first entered the amphitheater in Augst, playing a marathon of a medley called Union Jack, we took the opportunity to greet the audience. Just in the middle of the medley, you see, there is a four beat rest where we usually yell ‘one, two, three, four’ in German. On this occasion we were, instead, asked to yell ‘sa-li zae-mee’. It was a nice way to start the show.

The video below starts with the greeting and chaotically progresses until the end of the medley. It is one of the few bits of video I have of both the Americans and the Swiss playing together. Also, I love the bit at the end of the video where all the drummers are tightening their drums. Did they forget to do that before the show started? I don’t know.

We Are the Mariners – The Rights of Man

Rights of Man
To break up the monotony of fife and drum during our Swiss concert we mixed in some Celtic music. We performed three sets of tunes. Here is the middle and slowest set that we played, which is a well known hornpipe called The Rights of Man. Evidently this was a real treat for the Swiss audience since this is not a style of music they typically hear. At one point, although not in this set, we had the entire audience clapping along with us. It was great fun. The other interesting point is that half the guys playing this set were Swiss including Sam the bouzouki player. The first time we ever played this tune with them was two days before the show. That being said, I think it went quite nicely.

We Are the Mariners – Basel Parade

Here are a few pictures from our parade-pub-crawl through Basel and the festivities afterwards.
This is our oar. It comes to every event and contains the names of all the deceased Mariners. It has two sides.
Canon Crew
Wogs pulling the canon. You can think of wogs as Mariners in training. The one on the left is actually a phenomenal drummer.
View from the rear
Narrow streets, lots of drums, thunderous sound. You’ll have to take my word for it.
Fife line
Fife line. Mostly Swiss guys in this picture.
Good looking fellow ain’t he? What the hell, it is my blog, after all.
Big spoon, Big man. As my Irish buddy says, “You don’t get that big not like’n food”.
Boarding Party
Happy to see they are all in step.
Everyone always asks, “Where are your shoes?” To which I always reply, “I don’t own any.” There is never a second question.
Canon lady
Beer break. This lady found a relaxing place to sit down. What she did not realize is that thought the canon is loud and looks sturdy, it is essentially made out of paper mache. Fortunately, she didn’t do any damage.
Snare Drums
Aren’t they pretty? Old Moeller drums, new paintings, calf-skin heads, warm sunny day, cold beer, Basel…life really is good.
Bass Drums
I’m sorry, could you hit those things a bit harder? My ears aren’t bleeding yet.
Mariner Excersise program
Mariner exercise program. Oh, reminds me of a good joke…
Q: What did the bass drummer get on his IQ test?
A: Drool.
Sorry guys, I couldn’t resist.
After the parade in Basel we jumped on a tram and headed out of town for a party. Our Swiss friend Peter shows us how he can play the drums while hanging upside down like a bat. He might be crazy.
That’s Bob. He is crazy but he’s ours.
A gift From the Swiss. The dead fish is their logo. Cool.
A gift To the Swiss. It was full when we gave it to them. It wasn’t full shortly after.
This one is a little hard to explain.
As usual, tunes all night. Good times.