Crab pickers lose singing tradition

HYMNS HEARD LESS AT PLANTS

July 10, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

CRISFIELD -- When Evangeline Coulbourne was a young woman picking crab meat for 35 cents a gallon nearly 50 years ago, the tedious summer job seemed to go easier when she and the other seafood workers sang hymns they had learned in church.

If music is heard these days in the commercial crab houses along the waterfront here, it is likely to be contemporary songs played over portable radios.

In a seasonal industry where little has changed in half a century, the tradition of singing while picking crabs has all but vanished.

Mrs. Coulbourne, who at age 74 still works in the crab houses, blames the demise of the pastime on a younger generation of pickers who have little interest in the time-worn spirituals.

"They don't want to hear our old songs," she says. "They like that pop-pop music."

Of Crisfield's seven packing houses -- less than half the number that processed Chesapeake Bay blue crabs in the 1950s -- pickers in only one have kept the practice alive with a daily ritual of singing "The Lord's Prayer."

Each weekday morning, about three hours after the pickers have arrived at Byrd's seafood plant to begin work on the previous day's crab catch, whoever glances at the clock on the concrete wall will rap on the stainless steel table and announce the time.

"Nine o'clock, ladies," she says as the picking room, noisy with chatter and knives scraping, grows quiet but for the whir of floor fans.

The men who work in the plant lugging bushels of steamed crabs to the tables and sealing the fresh meat in containers -- picking crabs is exclusively a black woman's job these days -- stop in their tracks.

For the next couple of minutes, the women are not pickers but members of a choir who recite the prayer in a simple and melodic chant. Some have their heads bowed. Others look toward the ceiling. A few -- the younger ones -- look straight ahead with mouths closed.

Morning respite

When the song is finished, the women turn to their knives and crabs, and the picking resumes. For women such as Bertina Jackson, 31, the morning respite serves as a spiritual boost.

"It takes your mind somewhere else," she says. "I like it because it's a consolation to me. It makes me feel good."

No one is sure how the hymn singing began, but Ella Miles, who has spent 29 years working in crab houses, says the morning prayer supposedly started 20 years ago when a picker announced to her co-workers one day that God had instructed her in a dream to pray out loud every morning at work.

Apparently, no one disputed the dream, and the ritual was added to the regular hymn singing that already had taken hold in every crab house in Crisfield.

As recently as a few years ago, passers-by on the waterfront could hear dozens of women singing inside the cinder-block seafood plants as they picked crabs.

Singing hymns was even more prevalent during oyster season, because shuckers developed a natural tendency to sway as they stood opening the shellfish. The dramatic decline in Chesapeake Bay oyster production keeps most Eastern Shore seafood plants idle during winter months.

As older pickers stopped coming to the packinghouses and were succeeded by greater numbers of younger women, the singing grew less common. By last year, the only vestige of the reverential harmonizing was the prayer at Byrd's, the company that pioneered the pasteurizing of crab meat in Crisfield in 1951.

'Everybody at peace'

"I'm glad the tradition is still alive here," says Mrs. Miles. "It keeps everybody at peace with one another."

Not every picker was enthusiastic about the prayer at Byrd's, says John Catlin, the 79-year-old plant operator who came out of retirement when the company was bought and reopened this summer by James Dodson and Waldo Hanson Jr.

Mr. Catlin, who was reared in the local Somerset County Methodist church, asked the women to sing the prayer each morning. But some of the younger pickers, he says, told him they would leave the room if they were expected to stop work and join in.

"I told them they may think it doesn't help, but it doesn't hurt," he says.

The younger women agreed to stay, although not all sing with the other pickers.

"I guess it's OK for some of them," says one. "But I just don't want to do it."

Veteran crab pickers concede that while they tried to build a sense of family in the seafood plants, the younger generation of women are drawn only by the lure of earning $10 for every gallon container, which means 5 pounds of crab meat.

With area unemployment stable at about 12 percent, work is hard to find, particularly for high school dropouts. A picker with fast hands can earn $50 to $80 a day when crabs are plentiful.

Another reason young pickers have shunned the hymn-singing tradition, Mrs. Coulbourne says, might be that they see it as a carry-over from an era when their grandparents sought religion as a refuge from racial oppression.

No appeal for youth

The most popular hymns, such as "There's a Bright Side Somewhere" and "Come By Here, Lord, Come By Here, Somebody Needs You," have comforting themes that the older pickers say do not appeal to the younger ones.

"These babies had their eyes opened before they got here," she says, referring to pickers in their late teens and early 20s.

JTC At Bay Side Seafood, a few blocks from Byrd's, for example, pickers who wanted to sing and pray were opposed by co-workers who did not.

"Nobody wanted to argue about it, so we stopped," says Doretha Thomas, 38, who sometimes works beside her mother, Mrs. Coulbourne. "The young people weren't raised this way, or they just lost their love for it."

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