Mark Alan Lovewell
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Mark Alan Lovewell

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"Review of CD: Sea Songs of Martha's Vineyard"

If you need a special last minute Christmas gift that will appeal to someone of most any age and says “Vineyard” – here is the perfect solution. Sea Songs of Martha’s Vineyard, the new debut CD by Mark Alan Lovewell, is a wonderful collection of songs that celebrate our maritime heritage.
For those of you who have not heard Mark perform, or even those who have, there’s a treat in store. Mark’s voice is beautiful – rich and vigorous as befits these tales of stormy seas and strong men and extreme hardships. But he is also able to slide gracefully into gentleness and wistfulness as the songs tell of tragedy and loss. As he sings, Mark takes on the character of the songs’ colorful protagonists. He shouts the calls of a fisherman across the waters to his mate, he snarls with the fierceness of an angry captain. His tones dip into soft sorry as he sings the words of a sailor telling his true love goodbye. He squawks with indignant surprise at Uncle Jacob getting squirted with an eyeful of squid juice.
Not only can Mark sing, he can really play. His skill as a musician is evident in the lively and lilting sounds of the harmonica, concertina, guitar and banjo that accompany the songs. The music is sharp and clean and you’ll find yourself caught up in the tune and humming along.
These are the songs of the sea – of whalers and fishermen, of lost ships and lost loves, of the beauty of the ocean and lures of the port. These are the songs that were sung by the shanty men onboard ships headed to the whaling and fishing grounds, to help set the tempo for the grueling work of hauling sails or turning the capstan, or to endure the long dark nights and cramped quarters. Each is an enchanting musical statement, but also a lively geography and history lesson which tracks the movements of our Vineyard forbearers of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.
The songs feature Vineyard place names in the same breath as those other seafarers’ destinations which featured so prominently in maritime commerce of the day: Greenland, Cape Horn, Liverpool, South Australia, and, of course, New Bedford.
Greenland Fisheries gives us a step by step recounting of the sighting and pursuit of a whale. The haunting song, Desolation, speaks to the privations of the crew aboard “the meanest ship afloat in all creation, which from Edgartown did sail…” bound for Desolation Island, a frequent Arctic stop on whaling and sealing voyages. Despite the agony of the conditions in which these men existed onboard, they can joke that “the meat on the ship once belonged to a horse, or one of his damn near relations.” This use of humor in the face of adversity runs through all the songs.
In Sweet Roseanna, Mark is accompanied by his daughter Emma. The song’s theme is a reoccurring one: the pain of saying goodbye to loved ones as a journey of uncertain duration and outcome is embarked upon. The tune is made all the more powerful and heartbreaking by Emma’s lovely voice and the poignant harmony their voices create.
These songs are filled with fishing and whaling terminology and wonderful words that have slipped from our current vocabulary. With the clarity of Mark’s singing voice, one is able to hear and understand each word. Many of the songs are classic shanties we’ve heard for years, and to be able to say “oh, that’s what that word is!” is a real joy.
“It’s all about stories. I love the stories,” Mark muses with contagious enthusiasm. And you’ll love the stories too. The songs weave together personality and plot and setting in a fun and engaging way. You’ll wonder, who are the ghosts in The Ghostly Crew! And what are they planning? Who are these characters with the quirky names hanging out on the Squid Fishing Grounds? You’ll want to know and hear more.
Mark has been singing and performing folk songs from his early teenage years. “But I’ve always been drawn to the maritime, the romance of the sea with so many of its colors and flavors,” says Mark. “I built my first boat when I was ten. It had a square sail. I almost ran into the On Time because I hadn’t yet figured out that I needed a centerboard. I couldn’t steer it. I’d sail one way and row it back.”
The CD is, in many ways, a collaborative product of Vineyarders past and present. The late Gale Huntington collected a number of these shanties from his wife Mildred’s family – the singing Tiltons – and from log books and museums. He and Mildred encouraged Mark to sing shanties and collect on his own. Alan Wilson, Maynard Silva and Jim Parr were all there to encourage and assist in the effort. “I did this with the help of my friends,” says Mark. “I never would have gotten this done on my own.”
Perhaps the most moving and captivating song on the CD is Fiddlers’ Green. We hear the thoughts of an old fisherman as he prepares for his death and of his vision of a seafarer’s heaven.
“The weather is fair and the dolphins do play and the coastland of Greenland is far, far away. The sky’s always clear. There’s never a gale. And the fish jump aboard with the flip of a tail. You lie at your leisure, ‘cus there’s no work to do. The skipper’s below making tea for the crew.” The chorus goes. “Dress me up in my oilskins and jumper. No more on the docks I’ll be seen. Tell me old ship mates. I’ve taken a trip mates. And I’ll see you some day on Fiddlers’ Green.”
Mark has been asked to sing this sorrowful but hope-filled lament at a number of Vineyard funerals. It resonates with us all as people of the sea. And this entire CD, Sea Songs of Martha’s Vineyard, will do the same.
- Vineyard Gazette


Discography

Sea Songs of Martha's Vineyard, released in 2004;
Martha's Vineyard Folksongs, released 2005.

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Bio

Mark Alan Lovewell sings, plays guitar, concertina and harmonica and tells stories about the sea. He is a descendant of an old New England whaling family. For more than two decades he has written about the waterfront and the fishing industry on the Island of Martha's Vineyard for the weekly newspaper Vineyard Gazette.

Martha's Vineyard is a 100-square mile Island off the coast of Massachusetts..

Today, while writing about the affairs of the waterfront, he collects past stories of this seafaring community for sharing on stage. He upholds the maritime traditions of his Island and family, by singing songs and telling stories about an age when ships were wooden and the men who sailed them had hearts of iron.

Mr. Lovewell performs at the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society. In the spring of 2004, he sang and told stories on a tour of museums and schools with a history of New England whaling. He sang at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, and Iñupiat Heritage Center in Barrow, Alaska.