A People’s Song Upon the Waters

A Familial Examination of the Sea Chantey Lays Out Its African American Roots

The last time I visited my paternal grandfather, Elton Smith, Jr., at his Virginia home, it was 2018, and he was well into his 90s. As I interviewed him for a family memoir project, he sat regally on the couch, framed by a mantle of plaques, diplomas, yearbooks, newspaper clippings, family photos, and various items associated with Freemasonry. Amid all these impressive objects, what caught my attention was the understated insignia on his black polo shirt: a white anchor circled by the words “Northern Neck Chantey Singers.”

From the mid 2000s …