A Steamboat Song

The digital era has been an amazing time for fans of the dark, cluttered alleyways of history’s forgotten minutia. Speeches, music, photographs, and personal items have been disgorged and digitalized, and suddenly are exposed to the pale green light of modern culture for perusal. Hours can pass as you become a sort of informational Indiana Jones, wending your way through tangled warrens of links and web pages. Sometimes, though, you’re rewarded with the most splendid prizes that remind you what a charmed age this is.

At the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, steamboats and the culture around them have a special place in the affections of many of our visitors and interpreters, especially those who can remember traveling throughout the tidewater on them. In the late 19th and early 20th century, you could pack up a shoebox of cold fried chicken, biscuits, tea in a jar, and cake, and jump on board with your family at Light Street for an excursion on the Chesapeake. Often, the destination seemed secondary to the delights of a steamboat trip.  A day of fresh air and bright sun prickling your skin, and the calliope music trailing behind you as it mixed with steam from the great stacks, would have been a treat long remembered and treasured.

Today, in my online rummaging, I found a gem that evokes just this kind of feeling. “Sailing Down the Chesapeake Bay” is a little ragtime ditty written in 1913 at the height of the daytrip era for steamboats. The slightly nasal chorus, the almost chugging tempo, and the sweetly earnest lyrics perfectly convey the innocence of the pre-World War I years, when a day on the Bay with your sweetheart was a small luxury almost everyone could enjoy.

So close your eyes and listen to the sound of a time period that is gone, but thanks to the wonders of the digital era, is anything but forgotten.