International Festival of Maritiem Music Workum, a phenomenal music history

The International Shanty Festival Workum has been a leading phenomenon for years. Guests and public stumble over each other just to be part of it. For more than 20 years in October Workum was pulsating with the singing of chorus songs in which the sea played a major role and the ship yard “The Hope” in Workum has been the centre of creative maritime performances.

By Betsie Verberk, 2002
In the late seventies there were lots of little village festivals around Frisian folk music. It was new to sing in your mother tongue and in a short time it became very popular. However these little festivals were badly organised and it became clear that it could not go on like this. From that idea “Tsoch” started. A festival that offered a well-organized stage for folk musicians.”Tsoch” joined other events and in 1979 the idea was to combine “Tsoch” 3 with the annual “Strontrace “ (dung race)in Workum.

reidReid, the founder of the “Dung race”(Strontrace), the “Regular Barge Service”(Beurtveer) and the “Fishing days”(Visserijdagen) , was very enthusiastic about the idea. By bringing “Tsoch” to Workum, in the weekend before the “Strontrace”, he could bring the sailor songs back to the skippers. The exchange of ideas between Reid and the “Tsoch” committee led to the sing around event “Liereliet”. Singers from the association of Frisian folk musicians were invited to join the event. To give the sing around more significance, two important shanty singers from Britain came over, Jim Mageean and Johnny Collins. On Sunday night in the “green shed” , a basic accommodation, no more than a shed with some chairs, the group hudled shivering together in a semi-circle and in turns they started singing the chorus. Partly due to Johnny and Jim “The Liereliet event” became a success. That was October 1980. It was a promising start and the next move was only evident.
The singers of “Liereliet” were improving. They sought, found and wrote new songs; they got some experience by singing them. They played and sang their songs in the streets of Berlin, Bruges and Ghent. So they met shanty singers from other countries like Poland, Britain, France and America. These experiences at Festivals abroad inspired them to expand the sing around before the “Strontrace” into a real festival. A committee with Rensje Plantinga, José de Boer, Baukje Bangma, Piet Bouma, Gjalt Bosma, Ankie van der Meer and Nanne Kalma set up the first real International Shanty Fesitval in Workum in 1988.
The formula was : a programme with three lines of action ( singers or song groups), afterwards the “Liereliet” sing around and on Sunday night a fun band. In the following years apart from Johnny and Jim other Dutch or foreign guests were invited. Forebitter (America), Femmes de Marins (France), Tom Lewis (Canada), ‘t Klieske (Flanders), Stare Dzwony (Poland), the Liereliet group (Friesland)and many others. After years of plodding on in the “ green shed “ , the concert took place in the Mennonite church “De Vermaning”. The atmosphere of this church gave the festival a tremendous boost. Three hundred people singing with all their heart in this little church; provides an unforgettable experience. An immersion in music , with the vigour of the voice.
One of the highlights in the history of the Shanty Festival in Workum was the arrival of the absolute authority in the field of shanties, Stan Hugill, the last true shanty man. He was an all-rounder. He painted, sang, wrote and could tell about his work on board, the ports and the shanties for hours on end.
Till his death in 1992 his presence was always a top attraction at the several international festivals and in Workum as well. In 1990 when he came to Workum, Stan Hugill was 83 at the time. He had a performance on Saturday night during the regular programme, but after that on Sunday morning he had a lecture about shanties . He told about his work and songs and he illustrated that with songs or parts of songs. Johnny Collins and Jim Mageean have come to Workum from 1980 on. They did not skip it one single time.
IMG 9072Their performance is one of the regular parts of the festival. Johnny Collins and Jim Mageean have over time built up a close bond with the festival and its audience. By their firm appearance and distinctive charm they know how to make people sing along. In their own country (Britain) they are leading in the field of shanties, but also in other countries they are welcome guests at big shanty festivals.
At the festival new activities came and old activities went. Always looking for the best activities on the most beautiful spots. On Sunday morning a coffee concert was added so that more people had the chance to listen to shanty groups. In 1993 there was a shanty competition. People could send their own songs. After this competition it was decided to organise an “Open Stage”. Small groups and soloists were able to share their talents with a larger audience. In 1994 the first “Open Stage” was held with the theme : “ Sea Tear-jerkers”. In 1997, when “Forebitter” (America) was one of the guests, the festival had the right people to do the first shanty workshop. In the shed of the ship yard “De Hoop”(1693) music theatre performances took place. These musicals were written by Nanne Kalma; they were top class creativity in regard of the success these song cycles had. A special play was written on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the “Stront race”. “Blowing off steam in the crow’s nest” it was called. A new made fairy tale in which a skipper and a mermaid are falling in love. This was not performed in the shed but in the scenery of a score of masts in the harbour. The start of the “Strontrace” on Monday never took place unnoticed. On the dike and at the harbour groups were playing and singing before and during the start of the race. A good way to give the skippers a helping hand right at the start and a festive happening for the visitors. A few names of groups that entertained on these Monday afternoons were: Wiltsje van Peazens, Rèm’oly, De Scric der zee, Grietje Sprot.
The search for more knowledge and improvement is still going on. The International Shanty Festival Workum wants to offer its audience a first rate spectacle. That applies to the performing groups, the music theatre at the ship yard, the workshops but also to the “Liereliet” sing around. For years it has taken place in a crowded pub amid the tumult that is typical for a pub, which ruined the voices of the singers and on top of that, not everyone was able to enjoy the event. Since about four years the sing around has been in the “Klameare”. There is enough space for everyone and gives every singer its due. It is a small example of the dynamic character of the festival over the years. Again and again searching for solutions and having the guts to pick up new challenges. And also to cherish the small scale of the festival. This is the way to be sure that an October weekend in Workum is always very special as well for the audience as for the guest artists.