Eastport duo's band strives to capture the essence of the bay

Oyster Boys celebrate the Chesapeake life

December 28, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

Jeff Holland and Kevin Brooks seemed destined to sing about the Chesapeake Bay.

Holland grew up on the water and started a band called Crab Alley in the 1980s. Brooks, raised in Linthicum and an avid sailor, joined the folk quartet as the bass player.

"What we were doing as Crab Alley was using our personal experiences of living and playing on the Chesapeake Bay to write songs," said Holland, 56. "We wanted to resuscitate the songs of the watermen of 100 years ago, to foster an appreciation of the Chesapeake Bay."

Although Crab Alley dissolved in early 1990s, Holland and Brooks, who both live in Eastport, continued to perform together. They changed the band's name to Them Eastport Oyster Boys, and began performing their trademark comical musical history tour aboard the schooner Woodwind.

Although they play mostly on boats, they have also performed at festivals, such as the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, the Kinsale Jazz Festival in Ireland and the Baltimore Waterfront Festival.

And there was the time they were asked to sing on the governor's yacht after a high-level summit meeting.

"The yacht was filled with NATO's elite," Holland said. "They were singing along and enjoying the ride by the middle of the show. It was great. We took them away from their business and helped them to have some fun. That's what we're all about."

"It's an honor to be able to express to other people in other cultures who we are and where we're from," said Brooks, 53.

Their story began with the naming of the band during a brainstorming session.

"We asked ourselves: `What do we do in Eastport?'" said Holland, who has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Penn State. "The answer was obvious: oysters."

Brooks, an avid sailor with a degree in community development from the University of Maryland, College Park, suggested they go by "The Eastport Oyster Boys." Holland replied, "Them, Them Eastport Oyster Boys." The name stuck.

In addition to singing, Holland plays the baritone ukulele, and Brooks plays the six-string banjo. The band is accompanied by one or all of a group of musicians who play the accordion, trombone, bass, hammer dulcimer, electric guitar, fiddle, keyboard and percussion.

"We are different every time we perform," Holland said. "That's what makes it so much fun. One day, we might perform a song as a duo, and the next day we do it, we have six people behind us."

Regardless of who is on stage, when they get together they have fun, Holland said. Most of what they sing and play is original.

Named the official poet laureate of Eastport by Annapolis Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins in 1995, Holland has written a children's book called Chessie, the Sea Monster that Ate Annapolis, as well as historical documentaries about the Chesapeake.

"We share our own original thoughts and ideas in our songs," said Holland, who has been the director of the Annapolis Maritime Museum for the past seven years. "We give people a whimsical glance at the Chesapeake Bay, to try to help them connect with it."

Filled with Chesapeake history, their songs include shuffles, country-western ballads, rock tunes, tangos and Dixie swing.

One song, "Miss Lonesome," is a country-western song about an abandoned waterman's workboat on display behind the maritime museum. Another song, called "Back Creek Crab," is about crabbing, and the lyrics are packed with humor and satire.

It says in part, "Goin' down to Back Creek, sit on a pier / Dangle my line while I sip a beer / Give me some Back Creek crabs and put 'em on to simmer / I can eat about eleven-hundred dozen for dinner."

One of their favorites is called "Good Hat, Good Dog, Good Boat," a Dixie swing song about a sailor's three priorities.

"It's a song any sailor can relate to," Holland said with a chuckle.

Early on, Holland and Brooks were inspired by Tom Wisner, known as the Bard of the Bay. Wisner has spent the last 40 years as a singer, songwriter and environmental educator.

Wisner, who received the first Lifetime Achievement Award from the Chesapeake Music Institute earlier this month, pioneered the use of original songs and stories to heighten awareness of the Chesapeake Bay, Holland said.

Them Eastport Oyster Boys followed his lead, and have become a strong influence in the Annapolis region, said Wisner, 77.

"Singing about the Chesapeake Bay as I have done, and as they have done, is a celebration of the essential stuff in life," said Wisner, a Solomons resident. "And the celebration never ends."

What they love best about performing is just as simple. The duo still gets a kick out of seeing a child sitting in the front row, right in front of them, bopping to the music.

"They have no idea what the words mean, but we reached them at some level," Holland said.

He and Brooks also said they most enjoy finishing, and having an old-timer who was born and raised in the area approach and tell them they captured the essence of a moment on the bay.

"There's nothing like the feeling I get when someone tells me that I got it just right," Holland said.

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