San Francisco maritime park brings Broadway-worthy voices to the Balclutha

Illustration of Geoff Kaufman
Olivia Staser/Staff

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Among the smiling tourists lining the piers of San Francisco — from Ghirardelli Square to the Exploratorium — is an array of historic ships once filled with cargo, passengers and seafaring sailors. One of these ships is the 1886 Balclutha, which the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park used as a concert venue on Saturday for a twilight production of sea shanties and fair winds on the water.

Right off of Hyde Street Pier, the 31st Annual Sea Music Concert Series held its first show right inside the ship, which lightly rocked along to the tune of classic nautical ballads. The headlining performer for this night of the series was a seafaring man named Geoff Kaufman, who has been performing as a folk artist for almost 30 years. 

Opening the night was Dick Holdstock, who sang a crowd-warming a cappella set centered around the beauties of San Francisco. His musical storytelling led the endearing audience of elders through a swim of old city tales, including a warning against “those Frisco girls” for the young lads. Everyone in the crowd seemed to have an air of familiarity as they joined in the singing festivities, as if it was a scene out of an old-timers’ “Peter Pan.”

As Kaufman has spent many years on “historic ships of significance,” he led various shanties while playing an assortment of peculiar instruments during his performance time on the Balclutha.      

From his use of a concertina (a small, tubular accordion) to his incorporation of the rib bones of a buffalo, polished with the finest sharkskin, Kaufman’s idiosyncratic style was a gem in the night. Often recalling the historical backgrounds of each song and adding tidbits about particular tonal styles and time periods, he used his powerful voice to both belt lyrics and teach lessons on the mariner lifestyle.    

With each performance, people in the intimate audience lightly stomped along to the beat and participated in the choral verses as if they were having “a little party down in Newport.” Some lyrics weren’t crooned as proudly as others, however; some of the songs’ content often centered around derogatory stereotypes surrounding women and racial minorities. “I sing these songs the way they were written,” Kaufman said about the pieces from the early 20th century. While the problematic lines were addressed, the underlying insensitivity seemed to be glossed over by continuing to share the outdated messages.        

But Kaufman is as much of an educator as a performer — he explained the impact of each line and context about where the writers were and what was happening in the world at the time. Not only did he provide historical context for the lyrics, but he also provided wacky lessons on how each instrument worked and what the contraptions added to the songs’ authentic sounds.

And if songs could paint a picture, Kaufman achieved just that, especially with his performance of “Ten Thousand Miles Away,” an Irish pirate ballad. Members of the audience added ad-libs sprinkled within choruses, singing of the uncertainty that came with long-distance relationships back in the times of romantic letter-writing and a lack of Facebook Messenger.           

“Old Zeb” was another instance of musical elegance. By singing lyrics like “Rosie, get my Sunday shoes / Gertie, get my walking cane / We’ll take another walk to see old Alice sail again,” Kaufman seemed as though he was preparing the crowd for a story.  

The cozy show was hosted in a rather unique venue, and the intimate turnout made for a night of quirkiness and relaxation from both the space and the friendly crowd. Boats may not be for everyone, but this vessel surely made waves in the San Francisco Bay on Saturday night.         

Contact Skylar De Paul at [email protected]. Tweet her at @skylardepaul.