Maine is home to musicians of every level. Summer theaters and summer camps bring musicians both young and old to the coast. Outdoor concerts abound, but the Sweet Chariot Music and Arts Festival is an outdoor music experience of a different sort. This three-day festival takes place in early August on Swans Island, an island known mostly for its lobster fishing. Part of its character is that this festival is almost impossible to attend; there are limited accommodations on the island. Another is how the festival is entwined in this island community of lobstermen.
“Swans Island is right up there for attracting interesting characters,” said Doug Day, a Swans Island summer resident and Sweet Chariot’s program director. Located six miles off Mount Desert Island, the island has nearly 400 year-round residents, a number which swells to about 1,000 during the balmier months. With only one inn and a tiny general store, Swans Island is not a tourist destination and that’s fine with its resident lobstermen.
Yet every summer for nearly 30 years, Day has brought professional musicians and performers from all over the United States to the island for the three-day music festival. Using the 225-seat Oddfellows Hall, the Sweet Chariot Music and Arts Festival presents 24 musicians over three nights. A living mural painted by artist Buckley Smith emerges as a backdrop and testament to each season’s event. The music is Americana and folk performed by a Who’s Who of singer-songwriters. The audience consists of guests from local schooners, “yachties” and some local residents. The show runs too late for most lobstermen who are usually up before 4 a.m.
In the early years, in an effort to entice an audience for the evening’s shows, performers would row out into Burnt Cove Harbor and sing sea shanties to local boaters. This soon turned into a yearly tradition. Some lobstermen are willing to provide a boat to bring singers out onto the water. “I am astounded at how supportive the fishing community is [of the Sea Shanty event],” said Day. “For years Llewelyn Joyce provided his boat Prince of Peace.
The connection between lobsterman and visiting musician is forged in other ways. Jefferson Hamer is an award-winning folk musician from New York City. “He’s on the A-list,” explained Day. One summer Day came out of the theater one night and found Hamer sitting on the back step giving a private lesson to then 18-year-old islander Marshall Walker.
Walker is a lobsterman. He hauls full-time on his 35’ Duffy the Josephine Wriggins, named for his sister. Music seems to be his passion: he’s been playing the guitar for seven or eight years, along with the tin whistle and the mandolin. He collaborates with his brother Shep, performing classic country and Celtic music at home, on the mainland and most summers for the Sweet Chariot Music Festival. “We’re the opening music. We play in the theater before the show starts,” he said. Walker likes the festival. He appreciates the opportunity to play with professional musicians from around the country and the fact that they put on a “really good show.
While the Sweet Chariot Music Festival might be better described as a festival for musicians, there is no doubt that the people and environment of Swans Island nourish and support these musicians “from away.” And it seems that feeling can be mutual. “It’s a fantastic opportunity to listen to some truly great music,” said one local.
The Sweet Chariot Music and Arts Festival takes place this summer August 6 to 8. For more information contact Douglas Day, 156 Atlantic Loop Rd., Swan’s Island, ME 04685 or firstname.lastname@example.org.Category: Miscellaneous