Folk act sings carols of the Chesapeake

She lived on the Eastern Shore for 30 years and generally loved the place, but one thing Janie Meneely, an Annapolis-born folk musician, never quite got used to was that it rarely snowed on Christmas.

She responded as any holiday-loving singer-songwriter might, by penning a poem (which she later turned into a song). In "Santa and the Skipjack," St. Nick gets his sleigh stuck in the mud, then borrows one of the traditional dredging boats to finish his rounds.

"Everybody's entitled to some [seasonal] folklore of their own, don't you think?" says Meneely, 58, who as one-half of the folk act Calico Jack might play the song as part of "Sail Into the Season," an evening of tunes about wintertime life on the water they'll offer at the Annapolis Maritime Museum on Sunday night.

At a time of year when music lovers worldwide are enjoying landlubber fare about snowmen and chestnuts roasting on open fires, Meneely and her partner in Calico Jack, guitarist Paul DiBlasi, will team with Bob Zentz, a Virginia-based folk artist, to evoke in song what Christmas and winter's chill mean and have meant to those who work, live and play on the water, especially the Chesapeake Bay.

They'll share originals, a few traditional songs and a handful of spoken-word poems that touch on topics including the ports in which sailors find themselves on Christmas Day and what they might rather be doing than dredging, whaling or getting shanghaied as the weather turns chill.

"[These are] songs from the Atlantic maritime tradition with a few splashes from the Chesapeake Bay," says museum director Jeff Holland, a folk musician who has written dozens of songs about life on the bay. "[They're] songs sailors wrote about spending the holidays afloat, ones they sang during the winter months at sea, and stories they might have enjoyed on their rare times at home during the holidays."

Meneely, a one-time journalist who does most of the songwriting for Calico Jack, says it's her mission to spotlight the bay's plight through music focused on its characters, traditions and charms.

She got started on the path early. Her father owned a yacht brokerage in Annapolis, and Meneely grew up seeing watermen leave in the morning and haul their catch home at night.

Lots of them, she recalls, loved music. She remembers hearing the workmen sing as they returned on their boats at night, though it was mostly in a call-and-response gospel style indigenous to the American South.

Years later, she and some music-loving friends, including Holland, discussed the fact that other parts of the country had spawned their own maritime music; surely, they reasoned, the Chesapeake Bay had done the same.

When they set out to find it, though, they came up almost empty.

"There were some sea chanteys from the 1880s, and on the Eastern Shore, there was a Tin Pan Alley-type song about steamboats," Holland says. "Oh, and that original written by that local fellow in 1814 — you know, 'O Say Can You See?' Other than that, there really wasn't much."

Theories abound as to why — Meneely says the region's working classes might have lacked the education to set lyrics in writing — but the point is, she and several other musicians in the area, including Holland and Zentz, decided to remedy the problem. They interviewed old-timers about their lives, collected old poems and jotted their own observations, turning the material into folk music that sounded traditional and indigenous.

During the early 1980s, Meneely and Holland performed together in a band called Crab Alley that gained popularity around the bay, and Meneely eventually produced three solo albums in the genre, including songs like "Thomas Point Light," "Shangaied Dredger" and "The Waterman's Kiss."

"These oftentimes seem like songs somebody ought to have written 200 years ago, but it has taken the genius of people like Janie and Paul [DiBlasi] to bring it to light," Holland says.

Because so much oystering takes place in the coldest months, plenty of frostbitten imagery found its way into the work. Calico Jack will share a sleigh full, including originals as poignant as "An Eastern Shore Carol," as upbeat as "Jingle Bells, Oyster Shells" and as irreverent as a tune they play during programs for kids in the public schools, but only when the principals give permission: "Freezin' Our Butts Off On Chesapeake Bay."

"Some of the principals say, 'We don't use the 'B-word' here,'" Meneely says. "But the kids have fun with it. And that's half the point of the material."

Zentz, who plays everything from the five-string banjo to the didgeridoo, will liven up the evening, Holland says, likely performing one of his signature tunes, "Bill's Christmases," about a "ramblin' bloke" who has spent his holidays in ports of call from Malacca, Indonesia, to Malabar, India.

Meneely says "Sailing Into the Season" will be as festive as any holiday concert, but its theme promises to be as nautical as a Chesapeake Bay deadrise.

"When you're eating those oysters at home this time of year, remember, they haven't been sitting on a shelf since October," she says. "Someone just hauled them out of the bay. Watermen and sailors are out there in the elements when everyone else is by the fireside."

If you go

What: Sailing Into the Season, an evening of nautical holiday music

Where: The Annapolis Maritime Museum, 723 Second St., Annapolis

When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $15 in advance, $20 at the door (includes refreshments)

For more information or to make reservations: visit or call 410-295-0104.