On the Job
Billy Baye, Pirate
Annapolitan Cliff Long gives new meaning to living history
by Kat Bennett
A pirate’s life is one of many for Cliff Long, an Annapolitan who has made a career bringing history to life. As Captain Billy Baye, Long leads tours by land and by sea throughout historic Annapolis. From his brass buttons and curly beard to his turned-down boots and pigtail, Long is at once a bold seaman and a gallant leader, guiding the curious through stories of pirates, ghosts and buried treasure.
First Captain Billy Baye and his puppets make music, mixing chanteys and old sailing songs with stories, jokes and games to draw his audience in and make them part of the performance. Then he shouts to the crowd: “How would you like to hear the best, most amazing story about the most incredible and amazing pirate who just happens to live right here in Annapolis?”
“Aye!” the crowd cries out.
“This is the story of Broadside Ben and the Endless Treasure,” chants Baye.
What wind! thought Broadside Ben. His pirate ship, the Jolly Decapod had been scooting along in front of it for quite a few days now. On their way towards Tortuga, Ben was beginning to miss the homey comforts of the shipshape ship-shaped house where he lived high up on a hill on the very outskirts of Annapolis …
Many of his interpretations have won awards, evidence of his attention to detail and his convincing portrayals. Yet it is from his audiences that Long derives his greatest pride.
“It is really great,” he says, “when I am in street clothes and someone stops me and asks ‘Are you the pirate? My kids had the greatest time.’”
You can see Captain Billy Baye during the Annapolis Maritime Festival May 6 as he and his sidekick Hoppin Tom, the pirate cat, prowl City Dock to discover the best animal pirate in Annapolis. Starting May 28, Long reappears as 1900s’ lighthouse keeper Jericho McCauley to narrate a tour of Chesapeake lighthouses and bring alive the stories of the families who lived and worked in them.
The Road to Piracy
As any proper pirate captain should be, Long is a master of many skills.
Before his years as a pirate, Long portrayed a crewman from H.M.S. Bounty, a French-Canadian trapper, the captain of the modern version of Lord Baltimore’s Dove and a Ringling Brothers clown. During holiday festivities at Historic St. Mary’s City, he entertained as the Green Man, a character from pre-Christian Britain. In 2005 he added Chesapeake Lighthouse keeper to his array of historic identities.
A former concert master at the Olde Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, he adds authenticity by playing instruments his characters might have played: the bouzouki, mandolin, mandola, pennywhistle, guitar, hurdy gurdy and the Chan Zy, a sort of Siberian banjo.
As any pirate captain must, Long followed a long and winding road to his trade.
Originally from Chicago, Long trained in the 1980s as a clown with the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus and performed as part of the red unit, Ringling’s original traveling show. After two years, he wanted something different. Anthropology intrigued him. He earned a degree in anthropology from the University of Illinois and went to work as an archeologist and lab technician for Northwest University.
For the next two years, Long walked Native American pathways from Chicago to Joliette, Illinois, doing excavations. Each member of the team would dig a test hole along a set of transect lines.
“One day,” he recounted, “we had worked the entire day without finding any signs of Native American settlement.” Bone-weary and caked with mud, Long dug one last time. “I noticed a ray of light shining on a single spot on the forest floor. It was off the lines, but I followed a sudden impulse to dig there. That ray of light pointed to our first glimpse of an entire village site from 1300ad. I discovered a storage pit with stone tools and nearly intact pottery.”
Exciting as discovery was, Long missed the thrill of exciting others through performance. Loyola University offered a masters degree in public history. There Long merged his love of history with his love of performance.
At the Isle A La Cache Museum, Illinois dramatizers preserve the lives and times of Native Americans, fur trappers and voyageurs. Long joined them, portraying an 18th century French-Canadian voyageur, a man who might have walked the same Indian trails as the anthropologists.
“We developed an award-winning, four-hour, school program along with one-hour specialty classes teaching skills such as flint and steel usage, Native American storytelling and canoe making,” Long says. “We wrote about what happened and what didn’t, we discussed roles and prejudice and were sold out every season for six years.”
When Turner Broadcasting advertised for crew for the 1964 Warner Brothers’ sailing recreation of The Bounty, Long was ready to travel as sailor and chantey man. Because of his resemblance to one of the mutineers, he got the part of Will McKoy, a young sailor and former distillery worker from Scotland.
Once, Long recalls, “Will was just standing off to one side of the boat as Captain Bligh recounted the story of the Bounty. After Bligh finished, a couple of people walked over to Will and asked what happened to you? So I started to tell the tale of Will McKoy, the Bounty seaman who used tea leaves to distill an alcoholic liquor that drove the men on Pitcairn Island mad. Will’s own life ended when he jumped off a precipice in a fit of delirium tremens. Those first few listeners had grown to a crowd of 50, and that tale became a regular part of the Bounty presentations.”
As Long made history come alive for the visitors to the Bounty, one special visitor made history come alive for him. “While I was talking, I noticed a woman listening. After the story was done and everyone left, she came over. She was a direct descendent of one of the other mutineers, Isaac Young. ‘Thank you, for telling the story the way it should be told,’ she said.
“It was an amazing feeling,” Long recalls.
Will McKoy was so convincing that Long earned a promotion from mutineering seaman to the captain who brought Lord Baltimore’s colonists to Maryland aboard the Dove. Long headed the interpretive programs aboard the replica of the Dove at St. Mary’s College. During the Christmas Madrigal dinners at the Historic State House at Historic St. Mary’s City, he branched out again providing humor and mayhem as a 17th century Jack-in-the-green, or green man, dressed with ivy, holly and oak leaves.
From the old state capital he moved to the new, working first with the Historic Annapolis Foundation, then for Watermark Cruises.
The Pirate’s Life
As Captain Billy Baye, Long sometimes brings along members of his puppet crew: Grumpy Stumpy (pirate crab), Peter Totches (pirate skeleton), Black Angus aka Hopping Tom (ship’s cat) and Chain Shot Jack (talking skull). Together they perform The Hunt for John Cooper’s Gold, a one-hour family show, or Pirates of the Chesapeake School, a two-hour school program. The captain entertains adults as well with Pirates, Rum & Reggae, a three-hour adult cruise and Licentious Libertie, a progressive dinner.
During Watermark’s Ghost Tours, a ghostly pirate captain leads walking tours through downtown Annapolis taking visitors where the friendly and the fiend-like ghosts have been known. With Long’s Pet Tales, he encourages visitors to bring their pets as he tells the tales of animals that might have changed the course of history.
During the different pirate tours, Long created the tale of Broadside Ben, a fictitious Chesapeake Bay pirate and his friends. When Watermark owner Debbie Gosselin overheard the story, she was inspired to capture the tale as a book. Broadside Ben and the Big Brass Cannon was introduced at the 2005 Maritime Festival.
In 2005, Watermark launched Bay lighthouse cruises led by Long as lighthouse keeper Jericho McCauley aided by Beacon, his golden phoenix puppet. To prepare for his character, Long read through scores of letters and documents and gathered touching and inspiring anecdotes to bring his Chesapeake character to life. In their first season, Jericho, Beacon and Watermark were awarded the 2005 Best New Historic Initiative by the Four Rivers Heritage Group.
Now in his third year with Watermark cruises, Long is always working: writing new scripts, doing narration and updating his characters with new stories so that each year there is a new program.
“My reward,” Long says, “is creating a memorable day and a worthwhile time for all of our visitors regardless of age.”