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Volume xviii, Issue 8 ~ February 25 - March 3, 2010

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Follow on the Water

Tom Wisner’s last album is inspired and nourished by friendships from around Chesapeake Bay

reviewed by Sandra Olivetti Martin

If you want to know the Chesapeake, Tom Wisner’s final album, Follow on the Water, will make you mourn all you’ve missed.

Tom was born at the right time, on June 29, 1930. Through much of the 20th century, working the water was the way many a family lived. In the 21st century, men and women who follow the water became another threatened Chesapeake species.

Tom grew up in the right place — in hamlets washed by the waters of the Bay. I was a boy in the marshes of Cray Crab Crick … he recounts, in his “Intro for All Souls,” which begins the album and the story of Wisner’s “deep conversion to the local consciousness.”

The water worked its spell on him. So Tom followed the water. Not in the way of a waterman, who can sing Dredging is my drudgery, sailing is my pride. Neither in the second-hand way of us who know Chesapeake lifeways through books. Tom followed the water in his own way. Following his nature, he sat down with people, made friends and talked.

He spent much of his 80 years finding, cultivating and harvesting the stories of people who lived their lives on the edge of time in the heartland of Chesapeake Country.

“My personal connections were inspired and nourished by friendships all around the lands and waters of Bay Country,” he says.

With people and creatures as well, he’ll tell you: We’re bound in a web of deep and mysterious relations with the souls of other creatures. With periwinkles, crabs, fish, goose, turtle and others. We live at all times in the shade of their presence here. They are the wonderful elements of the creation that haunt, nourish and guide our lives: the terrapin, the great blue heron and relentless old watermen.

Follow on the Water compresses a lifetime of experiences into 24 cuts on two CDs. There are many more where those came from, in Tom’s mind and in his voluminous recorded library of stories and songs. The eventual home of the recordings — for Tom wants them to have a home in perpetuity — may be either Calvert Marine Museum or the Smithsonian Institution.

“Tom’s got one of the most comprehensive collections ever of oral Chesapeake history,” lyrical guitarist John Cronin told Bay Weekly. “He used to take his tape recorder with him to talk to watermen and let them run on.”

Sixty-year-old Cronin, who back Tom in Follow on the Water, is also bound to him in a web of many strands. John was fathered by Eugene Cronin, the Chesapeake Biological Lab director who turned Tom’s gathering ways to the job of education; and he fathered Tom’s musical life, back in the 1960s when the elder and younger Cronins and Wisner worked together at the Lab in Solomons.

In all that Tom saw and heard, he found poetry. In speech or song, all the words of Follow on the Water ring with the clear depths of that art form. Both poems and songs are simply worded stories layered with metaphor and meaning. In most of the folk-style songs, Tom’s clear voice leads, backed by the twined voices and plucking of Cronin, Wammy-winning musician Mac Walter, Frank Schwartz and Teresa Whitaker, all intimates of shared time and work. A pair of songs are the work of people dear to him: “Nathaniel” by the Cronin brothers Lou and John; and “A Good Boat,” by his son Mark.

In the stories, Tom recalls the wonders he’s seen and the people he’s known, including the lines and friendship of Chesapeake poet Gilbert Bryon, of the Chester River, in the song “These Chesapeake Men.”

On disk two, other followers of the water also tell their stories: skipjack Captain Wade Murphy, of Tilghman Island; entrepreneur Janice Marshall of Smith Island; Captain Art Daniels of Deal Island. Murphy and Marshall’s tales were recorded in living history performances at the Avalon Theater in Easton. As well as local flavor, Murphy adds pique, Marshall feminist humor and Daniels faith.

Follow on the Water was recorded over four years in the home studios of the musicians, including Tom’s own home on Sollers Wharf Road in Lusby.

All the collaborations are acts of love as well as art, for Tom catches people in his web.

You saw that if you were among the lucky 500 or so, including Gov. Martin O’Malley, who saw either of Tom’s hale-and-farewell concerts. On January 29 in Solomons and 31 in Easton (the January 30 concert in Annapolis was cancelled by snow, and its tickets forwarded to Easton), Tom and his musical partners brought the album to life.

Cancer was working hard at winning. Tom was pushed on stage in a wheelchair, breathing oxygen through a nose tube. Stories flickered on the edge of his memory till Chambers, Cronin or Schwartz called them back. In the early minutes, choked on his feelings and his forgetfulnes, brought on by chemotherapy, Tom had the gathering foremost in his mind. As it has always been.

“We’ve got to do more gathering up,” Tom Wisner begged his audience at Calvert Marine Museum.

You felt what he meant. And you’ll feel it in Follow on the Water, hearing Tom say I’m deeply invested in what I’ve been invested in in my life, and it’s because of that circle of elders who’ve been with me all my life. And you know, you’ve got ’em too. It’s a wonderful thing to acknowledge.

He’s talking about the web of life.

So as he segued into song, his voice still clear and bright, his laugh still reaching out to tickle you, you felt the drive that made him want to be with people, swallow their stories and learn their songs.

Even sweeter is his voice on CD, for his musical partners — including sound engineer Jim Fox who recorded Tom in the comfort of his home — were “pretty good musicians” who called out, Tom says “some of his best singing.”

“His voice is very pleasing because it has a natural resonance that’s smooth with just enough of that gruff edge to make it interesting,” says Bay Weekly contributor Jane Elkin, a professional singer. “He reminds me of baritone Johnny Cash, but with good pitch and a wider range.”

In the final album of his life, Tom Wisner has found “a way to follow my own dreams out to their end,” words he sings in “I’m of This River.”

“I’ve culled 2,000 bushels, I’m busted to the bone,” Tom sings, in the persona of a skipjack-sailing oysterman, in “Dredgin Is My Drudgery,” his album’s last song. His last words: “It’s been my joy, since I’se a boy.”

Follow on the Water: A two-disk package released in 2010 by Chestory, the nonprofit Center for the Chesapeake Story. With Frank Schwartz, Teresa Whitaker, Mac Walter and John Cronin. Produced, mixed and mastered by Jim Fox, Lion and Fox Recording: $30 at Calvert Marine Museum and

Editor’s note: On February 3, Tom Wisner entered hospice care at Calvert Hospice, 238 Merrimac Court, Prince Frederick.

© COPYRIGHT 2010 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.