Arts and Entertainment

Shifty Sailors hail the whales

French children dance to Shifty Sailor music on the Russian sailing ship Mir on Bastille Day.  - Photo courtesy of Vern Olsen
French children dance to Shifty Sailor music on the Russian sailing ship Mir on Bastille Day.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Vern Olsen

In the last two decades, the Shifty Sailors have built a loving fan-base on Whidbey with shanties that conjure fishing boats, salty air and bushy-bearded men contemplating the ocean.

The songsters have appeared in countless festivals, and even Seattle’s popular Folklife Festival.

This November, the 13-man choir will celebrate the release of their fifth album, “Hail to the Whale.” It’s a 16-song compilation of whale songs; likely the first of its kind.

The CD maps both the allegory and realities of historical whaling. The playlist includes “Norfolk Whalers” based on an early community of baleen whale hunters and the light-hearted shanty “Jack was Ev’ry Inch a Sailor,” about a man who escapes from a whale’s stomach.

Shifty Sailor accordion player Vern Olsen created the album’s 14th song “Come Home Lolita.” It chronicles the last surviving Southern Resident orca, Lolita, who was taken during the capture era. Olsen says it was written 15 years ago, and he taught it to young kids in local schools.

“I had all the kids on Whidbey singing this at one time,” he said.

The second half of the CD switches tones to whale preservation, with somber songs from the 1960s and 70s, including “Moby Dick” and “Song of the World’s Last Whale.”

The album coincides with recent news from Prague, where the ‘Sailors’ were invited to be the first American shanty choir to perform at “Shantyfest,” an international event in central Europe.

The Shifty Sailors are well-known on Whidbey but they also have a wide European fan base. They’ve toured the continent four times.

“I think we’re more popular over there than we are in America,” Olsen said.

The choir will perform six concerts in Prague and other Czech Republic towns this June, while staying in a “boat-el” on the Vltava River.

“Hail to the Whale” will be available beginning Friday, Nov. 20 and the Shifty Sailors are hosting a CD release party that night in the Coupeville Rec Hall. Tickets are $15, or $20 at the door, and the CD will be sold for $10. The tickets can be purchased at ClickMusic.Biz, Wind & Tide, BookBay, Moonraker, BayLeaf and Local Grown. The event begins at 7 p.m.

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