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Volume 15, Issue 20 ~ May 17 - May 23, 2007

Pulled by the Song of the Sea

After a lifetime on the water, Janie Meneely has found a new voice as Calico Jenny, singing chanteys of Chesapeake Bay

by Margaret Tearman, Bay Weekly staff writer

Come all ye fair young mermaids if you’d keep your chastity

Don’t ever kiss a waterman who sails upon the sea

For kissing leads to trouble and don’t I know it well

But if you doubt, then hear me out, my story I will tell.

The Oyster Wife
by, Calico Jack

Calico Jenny sings the stories of Chesapeake Bay.

The native singer-songwriter is sometimes somber, sometimes a bit naughty.

With a twinkle in her eye, she issues a bawdy warning to fair maidens on the hazards of kissing a waterman.

Changing her tune, mermaid-haired Jenny mourns love lost to the dark waters in the ghostly ballad of Katie Allen.

Then she sits and sings with the Oyster Wife on a long night’s wait for her rogue waterman to return home — she can only hope safely — after his midnight harvest in illegal fishing grounds. That anxious Oyster Wife gives her name to Calico Jenny’s new CD, a collection of songs of the Chesapeake sung with partner Paul DiBlasi, under the name Calico Jack.

The Other Woman

Calico Jenny is the alter ego of Janie Meneely, until recently managing editor of the influential Chesapeake Bay Magazine, with its monthly circulation of 45,000 and an authority on recreational boating on the Chesapeake.

“I kept the trains running, as they say, but I also edited my share of features and columns and had a writing responsibility as well,” says Meneely of the job she held for eight years. “Several of the stories I edited went on to win awards at the annual Boating Writers International competition. I won awards myself; most recently, second place in the Boating Lifestyles category, with a story I wrote about the Hampton Blackbeard Festival.”

After seven years, Meneely says, “I tried to quit but they wouldn’t let me.”

Finally the 54-year-old broke free of the confines of an office, escaping with the title of editor at large. Now she manages special projects, including seminars sponsored by the magazine to help recreational boaters stay smart and safe on the water. This is the khaki-clothed Meneely who shepherded hundreds of boaters into her magazine’s seminar tent at April’s Bay Bridge Boat Show to learn about diesel mechanics. It’s she who recruited Annapolis Powerboat School to teach women boaters to dock, on a twin-screw Luhrs, where they could hop in front of the wheel to see what they’re doing and where they’re going.

A Mermaid’s Life

Whatever Meneely does, she can’t get far away from the water.

Born and raised to a maritime family in Annapolis — her father, yacht broker Hank Meneely, ran Annapolis Boat Works — Meneely has sailing in her blood.

“We spent every summer vacation cruising New England’s bays,” recalls Meneely. “I grew up on the water.”

You can see that Meneely captaining a 27-foot, horse-traded, Tartan sailboat, Petrel — when she’s not scraping varnish or spearheading special projects at the magazine.

That’s how Jenny Calico grew up, too.

“I started writing songs in high school because I couldn’t play the guitar chords,” recalls Meneely. “So I had to make up my own chords and then the songs to go with them.”

As a teenager, she sang and played her own special blend at Annapolis’ Toad Stool, a long-gone high school coffee house.

But neither sailing nor music was Meneely’s goal. “I always wanted to be an English teacher,” she says. “I didn’t consider myself a professional musician.”

Out of high school, Meneely bounced around universities, “majoring in revolution.” She landed at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Modernization Processes.

Returning to her Bay roots, Meneely got the job she’d dreamed of, teaching fifth and sixth grade English at Annapolis’ esteemed Key School, where she was never far from the water.

In Annapolis, she met her future husband and joined him in St. Michaels. They spent four years living aboard their 40-foot Pearson yawl, sharing their love for the Bay while socking away funds for their future.

“We were really full-timers on the boat,” Meneely says. “We didn’t have pots of flowers on the deck. We spent all of our free time cruising the Bay.”

Drawing inspiration from her lifestyle, Meneely founded the magazine Bay Sailor. “It would have been a great ‘mom-and-pop’ project,” Meneely said, “but it was missing the pop half. My husband was too busy building his own business to help with the magazine.”

The marriage ended amicably after 25 years and two children. The magazine sold at a profit.

During those years, Jenny Calico was silent.

“The only singing I did was in the shower,” Meneely says, “and the only songs I wrote were silly little ones for my children.”

Janie and Paul DiBlasi perform in their civilian clothes.

Jenny Speaks Up

In Meneely’s fourth decade, Jenny demanded a voice.

“I’d spent some time visiting my friend, Steve Bunker, at his business China Sea Maritime Trading Company in Fells Point,” recalls Meneely. “In the shop, he had some maritime music playing in the background.”

Those notes awakened the sleeping musician.

“I picked up my guitar and suddenly the songs just fell out,” says Meneely. She took these songs to maritime musical friend Jeff Holland and together they put together “a hootenanny” at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum to, as she says, “ferret out traditional maritime songs.”

“We just expected a bunch of old-timers to show up,” Meneely recalls. “But we were surprised by the number of people interested in maritime music.”

Two in the crowd were Chris Noyes and Dody Welsh Parris. The three women partnered with Holland to become Crab Alley, Meneely’s first band.

As the Bay ballads flowed, other maritime musicians listened to Meneely’s songs.

Mellow baritone and mischievous grin had earned recognition and local celebrity for Paul DiBlasi, singer and guitarist with Pyrates Royale, one of the East Coast’s most respected sea chantey groups.

When Pyrates Royale added a Meneely song to their performance at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, the song writer listened in. There she met DiBlasi.

“She was taken by my charm and dashing good looks,” DiBlasi says.

For two years, the two performers met at chantey sings, musical gatherings of sea chantey enthusiasts.

“Chantey sings,” DiBlasi explains, “are outlets for people who like to sing maritime songs and to sing for the joy of singing.”

Meneely loved to sing, but she hated singing alone. One night in 2003, Paul joined her on stage.

Calico Jenny had found her Jack.

Calico Jenny and Jack

On their first CD as Calico Jack, The Oyster Wife: Songs of the Chesapeake Bay, 10 of Meneely’s original songs are joined by Edward Hammond’s “Shanghaied Dredger” and Janie’s adaptation of a traditional ballad, “Billy Taylor,” to complete the musical anthology of Chesapeake lore.

“Billy Taylor” is one of three individuals celebrated on the CD. In Janie’s version, Billy is shanghaied not into the English navy, but “like a drunken soldier, sent to the oyster rocks instead.”

“Katie Allen” sprang from a ghost story Meneely heard around a campfire on the banks of the Chester River. In her song, another life — and love — is lost.

“Old Bill” is a composite character, based on a pair of watermen who kept their boats near Meneely’s childhood home. “This is a song to honor them,” she says.

Joining the three characters are a couple of occupations: “The Boatbuilders” honors the talented boatwrights still “plying their trade here in the Chesapeake region.” “The Salvagers” of the CD made their living off boats that ran afoul of the shoals off Point Lookout. “Shanghaied Dredger” is an occupation, too, but it’s more a misfortune.

The title song is a love song based on Deltaville, Virginia, waterman Uncle Willy Willis and his wife’s long night waiting as he ran his boat under cover of darkness into forbidden oyster grounds on the Potomac. Sometimes fired on by the Maryland Oyster Navy in the 1950s, Uncle Willy would hide behind the mounds of oyster shells on deck, “hoping he wasn’t hit.”

Two songs on the CD document places: “Islands” and “Point Lookout.”

One song, “Toadfish,” commemorates a Bay creature. And two —“Waterman’s Kiss” and “Anthem” — are praise songs.

“I wrote these songs for people who love the Bay,” says Meneely. “And I hope that when people hear the songs they take more of an interest in its history.”

The acoustic folk music is easy to listen to. “We call it Chesapeake eel-grass,” Meneely laughs.

“Janie is the perfect representative of our community and music,” says fellow chantey aficionado and performer Jackie Waymire. “She excels in encouraging young people in the genre and passing down traditional songs.”

Into the Future

Jack and Jenny and their Calico Jack CD The Oyster Wife.

Meneely’s at the stage of her life where she’s given herself permission to step out of the box.

It’s as Jenny of Calico Jack — now a duo in life as well as music — the new Meneely feels most at home.

Calico Jack performs up and down the Eastern Seaboard, delighting old fans and earning new ones with their lively tales set to traditional maritime rhythms. Another Calico Jack CD is in the works. It, Meneely promises, will go beyond the Chesapeake into new maritime regions.

In another incarnation, as Miss Janie Meneely, she’s living out her old English teaching dream, taking her musical tales of watermen and the Bay into classrooms to preserving the traditions of life on the water.

Merged with Jenny Calico, Meneely has left Annapolis for Wheaton to be with her Jack. It’s the first time she has lived “so far away” from the water and her boat, docked at her brother’s marina, Shipwright Harbor, in Tracys Landing. But her landlocked residence isn’t keeping her from her beloved Petrel. She spends many days primping the vessel for its next adventure.

“I want Petrel to circumnavigate Chesapeake Bay,” Meneely says, “but not always with me on board.” To share her deep love of sailing with others, she plans to put together a tag team of sailors to take Petrel on the voyage. “I want one crew to sail from point A to B, a second team to sail from point B to C, and so on.”

So as Petrel continues on one journey without her, Meneely sets off on yet another.

The writer in her hasn’t let go, either. She’s wrestling with a book about the sinking of the skipjack Claud Somers, which combines, she says, three perfect Bay themes: an African American waterman, a skipjack and the oyster industry.

“There are so many people new to the area and who don’t know the history of the Bay or the cultural ramifications,” says Meneely. “When I was a child, Annapolis harbor was jammed with workboats, not pleasure boats. It’s easy to forget the oyster industry was white gold.”

In this latest stage of Meneely’s life, Janie and Jenny are stepping together into a future joined by words, music, the Chesapeake Bay and Calico Jack.

So twist off the cap, Jack, and let’s all have a swig

Here’s to the jolly waterman who’s neither prude nor prig

Here’s to the jolly mermaid and to her progeny

And if you see that waterman, give him a kiss for me

Hear Calico Jack

• 7:30pm Thurs. June 14 at Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum, by Rod n’ Reel, Chesapeake Beach. free: 410-257-3892;

• 7pm Wed. Aug. 8 at Cap’n Herbie Sadler Park on the Annapolis Maritime Museum grounds: 410-295-0104;

• noon Aug. 9 at Annapolis City Dock.

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