Music draws visitors to learn watermen’s history

Published 5:22 pm Wednesday, October 16, 2019

By Cathy Welch


“We believe music and other social activities are embedded within the culture of every people group of since the beginning of time,” says Mike Steen, director of education at The Watermen’s Museum on Yorktown’s historic riverfront. “It’s impossible to tell the watermen’s history, culture or daily lives without music, dance, storytelling and art.”

Watermen’s hosted its seventh annual Folk Festival on Sept. 28-29. Founded in 1981, the museum documents the Chesapeake Bay watermen’s history from pre-Colonial to modern times by providing a historical display of exhibits, crafts and trade methods.

“Watermen’s Museum shares the story of our men and women who worked the water: protecting the waterways and villages; piloting ships; ferrying goods and people; and harvesting our delicious seafood,” museum President Steve Ormsby said.

“There have been jam sessions here for 10 years,” Ormsby said. “These were the genesis of what is now a full-blown festival including all folk traditions.”

The mastermind behind the festival is Steen, an Annapolis native. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in history from Virginia Military Institute and a Master of Science in tourism and parks and recreation from Virginia Commonwealth University. He joined the staff in 2009.

“We’ve grown from being under one on-site tent to now, having a bigger stage built,” Steen said. “Now we have four venues going on simultaneously.”

Music is a tool Watermen’s Museum uses to draw visitors to the event.

“The word watermen attracts a small crowd, but most people could care less,” Mike says. “We have to attract them with things that are relative, such as music, food and a bounce house … anything it takes to bring a family in.”

The museum’s definition of folk music is that which can be clearly defined as American and suitable for family entertainment including sea shanties, bluegrass, blues, country, soul, pop, light rock, jazz and more.

“We mix a little classic rock and roll, a little bit of folk, country, Irish, Scottish and more,” Steen said. “American music is that mix.”

Three musical groups who performed were Two if by Sea; Sideshow, the acoustic end of the larger Blind and Dirty, Grateful Dead tribute band; and rockabilly classic rock band, Billy Joe Trio, headlined Saturday evening. Individual artists Joe Kaplenk, Stephen Cristoff, Mingo Sowers and Danaka performed on the Beach Stage.

Singer, storyteller and homemade music creator, Bob Zentz, and song historian/performer, Jeanne McDougall, brought their back porch “Ramblin’ Road Show” to sing and tell stories, especially about Ramblin’ Conrad. Conrad was a Norfolk-based guitar artist discovered by Zentz as a homeless man with a guitar slung over his back. Johnny Cash was a fan of Zentz, and he has the framed, handwritten letter Cash sent to prove it.

“When Watermen’s Museum is closed January through March, we hope to be here to offer a by-appointment folklife center with maritime waterfront life,” McDougall said.

Watermen’s Museum’s Folk Festival brought in their first dance group in 2018. This year they featured three groups: The Rose and Sword Academy of Irish Dance, Kountry Kickers and Drunken Weasels Border Morris Dance group.

Craft demonstrations included hand-blown glass by renowned Lawrenceville-based Colonial American period-style glass blowing artist, Phil Gilson, under a tent by the onsite windmill.

WestRock Industries, the paper mill in West Point, fully funded the festival, allowing for free admission to the event.

“We want to grow the festival to include as many different groups and attractions as possible in order to spread the word of the watermen’s history,” Steen says. “We use music to tie into the community.”

For information on the museum, contact 388-2641 or visit