Ailing 'Bard' Reflects

Tom Wisner Hasn't Let Cancer Stop His Bay Efforts

April 20, 2009|By Jenna Johnson | Jenna Johnson,The Washington Post

Tom Wisner no longer performs for large crowds, just occasional visitors eager to learn what they can from the 78-year-old folk-singing environmentalist before the tumor in his lungs claims his life. His trademark white beard disappeared after chemotherapy. The treatment made his fingers so sensitive that he no longer plays guitar.

For decades, Wisner has been known as the Bard of the Chesapeake Bay: a folk singer, artist, poet, historian and educator whose music celebrates the rivers and the bay. The Smithsonian Institution has recorded Wisner's work, and he was the recipient of the World Folk Music Association's 2002 John Denver Award. To many ears, his voice is that of the bay itself.

Now, ailing and alone in his rented farmhouse in Southern Maryland, Wisner finds himself reflecting on the consequences of dedicating his life to the bay: the collapse of his marriage, distance from his children, near-poverty. "My work became my life," he said. "It became my family."

To honor Wisner's work, lawmakers recently proposed that one of his songs be designated the state's first official children's song. But too many "state designation bills" were introduced this year and the House version of the song bill introduced by Del. Sue Kullen died in committee.

Wisner took a job as an educator at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons, and then began recording the oral history of the region, taping interviews with old watermen and documenting the tunes oyster shuckers sang as they worked.

The tumor in his lung has shrunk with chemotherapy. And Wisner decided that, while he still could, he would share his knowledge of and love for the Chesapeake.

Earlier this month, Wisner climbed with his cane onto an outdoor stage at Historic St. Mary's City.

Along with dozens of students from the St. Mary's County charter school, he sang "The Land Maryland," the song that Kullen had pitched to be the state children's song.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, who was on hand, proclaimed it the official song for the state's 375th birthday. The airy tune tells the story of colonists taking a trip across the ocean and arriving in Maryland.

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