Down East 2013 ©
By Will Bleakley
Photograph by Kate Sfeir
Take a sailboat by Swan’s Island and you’ll encounter gentle swells, calming sea breezes, and, if you’re lucky, a boat full of folk singers, bagpipe players, ballerinas, flamenco dancers, and Nigerian drummers singing sea shanties. Seeing two-dozen globetrotting performers followed by a flotilla of kayaks and dinghies sidle up to your schooner and sing a hearty rendition of “Bully in the Alley” may take you by surprise, but the unexpected is the norm during the island’s Sweet Chariot Music Festival.
Now in its twenty-fourth year, Sweet Chariot is a three-day-long concert on both the water and mainland of Swan’s Island during the first week of August. Equal parts folk-festival, musical-family reunion, and spontaneous jam session, the event has been described by singer-songwriter Bill Burnett as “a strange gem of a concert series.” Burnett, who has attended the festival since the beginning, says it is “a trip to a folk music Brigadoon that awakens once a year and bounces and throbs and sways to the sounds of guitars, banjos, fiddles, drums, bagpipes, and voices.”
Sweet Chariot is the brainchild of folk-musician Douglas Day, who, in his late twenties, purchased a barn on Swan’s Island and turned it into a makeshift concert venue — albeit one missing both a wall and an audience. “Then it dawned on me,” Day says. “There were all these tourists on schooners from Camden dressed up with nowhere to go, and at Swan’s Island we were right where the ships like to turn around.” So he jumped in a small boat with his guitar, and began singing folk songs and telling stories to ships anchored in Burnt Coat Harbor. “One day I just invited the whole boat back to my barn. The next year I invited David Dodson to join me in performing, and then the next year I invited eight more people.”
The concerts, since relocated to the island playhouse, the Odd Fellows Hall, have continued for nearly twenty-five years with the same core group of roughly twenty loyal performers from around the country. As Suzy Williams, a soul singer from California and regular since the festival’s early years, says, “With all these sweet perks, like the sunset lobster barbeque on the beach, who could refuse? Who in their right mind could refuse?”
The festival is divided into three components; midday shanties, evening concerts, and late-night jams. In the afternoon, a group of twenty performers sail out to schooners parked in Burnt Coat Harbor and entertain them with traditional sea shanties. At night, the schooner-folk, along with Swan’s Island residents, and anyone lucky enough to have both a ticket and a place to stay, are invited to the Odd Fellows Hall where the audience is treated to several hours of globe-spanning, soulful, but largely folk, music. “They really rock the place,” says Annette Joyce, a year-round Swan’s Island resident who has been going to the show since the eighties. “I’d be hard pressed to imagine this not happening on the island. I’ve seen these musicians gel, jam, mix, and evolve it into the event it is today.”
While the sold-out audiences of more than two hundred sway, clap, and give themselves over to the music, no one is happier to be there than the artists themselves. That’s due in large part to the all-night jam sessions at Day’s house following the concert. The eclectic and eccentric group of pink-haired entertainers, folklorists, gospel choirs, painters, comedians, West African percussionists, and family bands stay up until four in the morning reveling in the diversity of talent and their one-of-a-kind chemistry. “We just sit around, listening to and feeding off each others work,” says Annegret Baier, a German drummer specializing in Nigerian rhythms. Suzy Williams adds, “The Sweet Chariot musicians and their families are my friends. The first couple of years I went to impress these musical marvels, but soon I realized I was motivated just to hear their voices and dig what they were playing.”
Day credits the confluence of distinct talents, a discerning audience, and the magical locale for making Sweet Chariot the organic and always surprising event it is today. Or, as Burnett puts it, in a way more befitting of the spirit of the festival, “It’s the annual island folk, schooner folk, folkie folk ball. . . . Odd fellows, odd fellows, odd fellows all.”
If You Go: The festival is August 7 to 9 on Swan’s Island. Tickets are $20 per night, and information for how to get them is at sweetchariotmusicfestival.com. Do not plan on going unless you have made overnight accommodations. The ferry service does not run at night. One way to attend is by booking a spot on a windjammer cruise that makes a stop at the island. Ships attending this year include the Schooner Mary Day, Lewis R. French, and Heritage.