Corrections or additions?
This article by David McDonough was written for the March 14, 2001
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Soulful Songs from the Sea
Gordon Bok has an office manager named Selkie O’Mira,
which is just as well, because if she did not exist, he would have
had to invent her. Then again, we can’t be sure he didn’t. The man
who for 40 years has been singing and writing about fisherman and
schooners and the islands of Maine, and who tells tales of mystical,
magical Celtic sea creatures like the half women-half seal known as
the Selkie, surely couldn’t have an assistant named Jane Smith.
Bok brings his songs, his 12-string guitar, and other toys to the
Princeton Folk Music Society on Friday, March 16. He’s made many
with the folk trio of Bok, (Ann Mayo) Muir, and (Ed) Trickett, and
frequently performs with his wife, the harpist Carol Rohl, but he’ll
be a solo act on this occasion.
"I enjoy singing all those songs that I only sing alone,"
he says on the phone from his home in Camden, Maine. "I get to
air them out — it’s like a horse you have to exercise. And I enjoy
adding new songs that come my way. People send me all sorts of songs.
One out of 90 maybe I’ll use. How do I know if I like a new song?
It’s as though my body craves it. I don’t necessarily know it at the
time. Sometimes, six months later, I’ll be trying to remember the
words. I have to see the pictures in it, even in a tune."
Gordon Bok was born 61 years ago in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
World War II his father relocated to work in the shipyards of Maine.
"We moved back to Pennsylvania once the war ended," Bok
"and my mother couldn’t stand it. We went back to Camden, and
my father bought into the shipyard."
Bok’s childhood memories are rich and warm: hanging around the
working there occasionally, helping his brother and his friends in
their fishing boats, and learning guitar and folk songs from his
aunts, and uncle.
As a young man in the early 1960s, he spent seven winters in
teaching music at a settlement school and giving private lessons.
It was the height of the folk music revival, and there was a
scene in Philadelphia. Bok hung out there, and discovered that his
interests went beyond the English language folk song genre. "I
began to hang out with some Mongolians that had moved in to the city,
and got involved with their music and Russian music. I get my music
from all over. I just got half a dozen piece from Sweden. I grew up
with Finns in Maine, so I’ve got a friend who sends me CDs and stuff.
And one of my great influences is my friend Peter Platenius, who
music back from South America."
His other influences are equally diverse: in one
he cites the classical guitarist Andres Segovia, Leadbelly, the king
of the 12-string guitar, and folksinger Josh White. He has always
been keenly interested in varying his sound with many instruments,
and if he can’t find one, he will invent it or modify something
existing. The Bok-whistle, the cellamba (a cello coveted to a deeper
sound), and various guitars all contribute to his unique tones.
But it is the songs of the sea that have contributed most to Bok’s
enduring popularity. He writes songs based on the experiences of the
working people around him on the shores of Maine. Songs like "The
Hills of Isle Au Haut," "Clear Away in the Morning," and
"Bay of Fundy," have become standards and have been covered
by well-known folksingers like Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy. They have
put Bok in the same class with other chroniclers of the sea such as
Stan Rogers and Ewan MacColl.
There is an undeniable sadness in Bok’s sea songs. These are not the
rollicking "Hoist up the sails, me lads, and kiss the girls for
me, we’re off for the brave banks of herring, and the edge of the
Greenland Sea" type of songs. They’re more likely to be about
hard work and low pay, or in the voice of the women wailing for a
lover lost at sea.
"Well, that’s what you hear," Bok explains bemusedly.
is more fun. I have a song `Mrs. MacDonald’s Lament’" in which
the husband goes off to fish day after day and can’t really make a
go of it. "They ask me to do it all the time up on the island
where it took place. Yet now they are doing wonderfully — they’ve
got a co-op. It’s a great life if you don’t mind the cold." He
politely but firmly brushes off the suggestion that he write a new
number called "Mrs. MacDonald’s Co-Op."
Then there are the cante-fables, in which the music, spoken word,
and lyrics combine to tell an epic tale, often involving the myths
of the sea. It’s an ancient form, although Bok says that at the
he didn’t know that. "I just started to do a story with music;
the first was `Seal Gerald’s Hymn.’" His most famous, and
cante-fable is "Peter Kagan and the Wind," the story of a
sailor in a small boat in a large storm, and the other-worldly
of his rescue.
"I don’t perform it much anymore," says Bok. "One reason
is that it’s long and hard to remember. The other reason is that my
guitar was getting hard to play — it takes a lot of strength to
play that, and one of us, the guitar or me, was getting
Bok still maintains a solid performing schedule, although not as full
as in the past. "I don’t enjoy flying," he admits.
something illogical about it. I also think I have a 10 knots soul.
It isn’t meant to go 40 knots." It is ironic that this man of
the salt only saw the movie of "The Perfect Storm" on an
Each spring and each fall, he makes up a list of 150 songs that come
to mind, and starts to practice. But he tends towards the smaller
venues now. As much as he enjoys the camaraderie of the folk song
festivals ("A friend of mine once said a folk festival is a place
where everybody wins") he has put them aside.
"I take my retirement in the summer, when so many the festivals
take place," he explains. "My wife and I move on to our boat,
a 32-foot ketch, take a few instruments with us. We do a lot of
and just wander around Maine. We have no children, but we have a lot
of friends around the islands. There is one friend, Jack MacDonald,
a singer out of Isle au Haut, I will never forget his singing. I was
only 19 when I heard him, and he stopped not long after that. But
I was stunned by the honesty of it."
He adds that he is looking forward to coming to Princeton, where he
has not played in years. "I tell people I usually honor requests,
only sometimes not the same evening, often because I haven’t thought
of the song in a long time. But I do enjoy requests — it’s like
meeting an old friend."
He asks if the Princeton audience will sing along, and is pleased
to hear that, in fact, nothing can stop them from doing so. "I
like to provoke that," he says. "A lot of enjoyment comes
when the audience and I and the songs re-creating a sort of fourth
entity. Aren’t we lucky?"
— David McDonough
Congregation Church, 55 Walnut Lane, Princeton, 609-799-0944. $12.
Friday, March 16, 8:15 p.m.
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