The Shantymen. Front row (from left): Bob MacConnell, Jim Rideout, David Mahoney. Back row (from left): Ed Kennedy, Mark Palmer, Gordon Rothwell, David Sollows, Wayne Robicheau, Eric Ruff, Brad Fulton.
By Eric Bourque
Among local musical groups, they have a unique sound, one that was first heard at a public event three decades ago.
Eric Ruff, who founded the Shantymen – and who is one of four original members still with them – recalls the group being formed as a result of a promise he had made to the Yarmouth County Historical Society to give a talk on sea shanties.
The presentation would include singing, but Ruff remembers not wanting to sing by himself so he contacted some people, asking them if they might want to join him.
There were 10 of them in all for that first performance at the Collins Street museum in the winter of 1984.
“I gave a talk and we illustrated with these songs that we’d practised for a couple of weeks,” Ruff said. “It was quite amateurish, but it was fun. We all sort of put on navy blue jerseys and jeans so we had kind of a uniform.”
He had no idea he was starting something that would last 30 years, Ruff says, but the group is still at it, performing at various events, entertaining locals and visitors alike, and on Friday evening, July 4, the Shantymen will sing at the Yarmouth County Museum, the same place where it all began, a show to commemorate the group’s 30th anniversary.
Ruff describes it as a “reenactment,” albeit one with a lineup quite different from what it was back in the beginning.
“It’ll be fun,” Ruff said in an interview at the museum. “I’ll talk about how we started here and what’s gone on to (get) where we are now.”
Aside from Ruff, original members with the Shantymen today are David Sollows, David Mahoney and Wayne Robicheau. The current lineup also includes Bob MacConnell, Jim Rideout, Ed Kennedy, Mark Palmer, Gordon Rothwell and Brad Fulton.
The group has, on average, maybe eight to 12 performances per year, Ruff says, although there weren’t this many at the start.
Ruff, the Shantymen’s “skipper,” was the Yarmouth County Museum’s curator at the time of that very first performance three decades back. Asked if the audience seemed to like it, he smiled and said, “It’s so long ago, I can’t remember. I think they did.”
Over the years, aside from its many local performances, the group has sung in Halifax – it is scheduled to perform again at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic July 8 – among other Nova Scotia locations and events, including the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival. The Shantymen also have performed out of province, Ruff mentioning Bar Harbor and Saint John as two examples.
One experience that stands out, he says, was maybe seven or eight years ago, when the group performed at a sea shanty festival in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, Quebec.
“We sang with an Australian guy, a sea shanty singer,” Ruff recalled. “We did a performance with him and it was recorded on the French CBC and that was broadcast nationally.”
The Shantymen have done three CDs – Old Cameron at the Wheel, Heavy Weather and At the Halliards – and they’re scheduled to record another the day after their 30th-anniversary show at the museum.
The Shantymen are good friends, Ruff says, and they enjoy what they’re doing.
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” he said. “We have fun … When we’re on stage, people say ‘you guys are having fun.’ That’s what it’s all about. It’s not about serious singing.”
Sea shanties, after all, are work songs that were sung by sailors when doing things like hauling a line or sail or pulling up an anchor. They were sailors, not singers.
“That’s the excuse we use if we make a mistake,” said Ruff, laughing.