The Vineyard’s fisher journalist, poet, and folksinger pulls the pieces together
By Doreen Leggett
Mark Alan Lovewell drove his silver pickup past the Edgartown Yacht Club, where swordfish used to land, past the marina at Oak Bluffs, which used to be stuffed with commercial fishing vessels, past a seasonal fish market, and on toward Menemsha, a port that has become quieter in recent years.
On the way he drove by Morning Glory Farm, successful in large part because of independence and family tradition. He loves that farm.
“The narrative is that we are looking out for our family farmer… We all get that. We want to save the family farm,” Lovewell said. “What about the family fisherman?”
Lovewell has been writing about family fishermen for close to 40 years and has been a folk singer even longer.
“I seem to have done everything wrong. I went into journalism. I went into folk music. I went into poetry,” said Lovewell with a laugh.
Recently he combined all three to do something he thinks is right, a CD, “With the Fishes,” that celebrates small-boat fishermen of Martha’s Vineyard and beyond.
“I will never be on the hit parade, but there is no other way. Somebody has to do it,” Lovewell said.
Just beyond him were sturdy fishing boats, some of them older than him. One of the boats, docked behind a pile of lobster traps, was in part inspiration for the first song on the album, Fishing Boat Sarah. Little Lady, a wooden, Eastern-rigged dragger in the Jason Family for three generations, and two draggers no longer around, the Quitsa Strider and Unicorn, combined in his mind to become Sarah.
“It wrote itself,” said Lovewell of the song.
The song is about a fishing boat on a successful trip and the captain sings about his personal relationship with the boat, worries about the family he left at home, focusing on power of tradition. That is what matters, following in the footsteps of his grandfather.
“The best measure of what we do isn’t the fish in the hold/The biggest payback is not when the fish are sold,” the lyrics say.
Later in the CD, Lovewell details how the industry has changed, through a song about what happened in Newfoundland with a title that resonates with fears here: No More Fish, No Fishermen.
Lovewell is the island’s fisher poet, having seen first-hand the trajectory of the industry. When he was young all the ports on the Vineyard were filled with vessels catching everything from cod to fluke to halibut. His grandmom used to take him down to buy fresh swordfish at the dock.
Lots of boys wanted to grow up and become commercial fishermen.
“You could understand what a fisherman did, you could see what he came back with every day,” Lovewell said. “Commercial fishermen were the most respected people in the town.”
But things changed during the 25 years he wrote his column, The Fisherman, for the Vineyard Gazette.
“I felt like I was covering the decline of the dinosaur,” he said.
The CD touches on that. In “Fish and Fishermen are Precious,” Lovewell talks about the 75-foot Unicorn, which was sold by owner Greg Mayhew (who passed away last year).
“It is a big loss with her departure. There are no large steel boats with Vineyard captains fishing and dragging their nets across Georges Bank,” Lovewell says. “There is complexity to why we lost our deepwater fishing fleet.”
All is not lost however. The Martha’s Vineyard Fisherman’s Preservation Trust, patterned on the older Cape Cod Fisheries Trust, leases out quota so young fishermen can get on the water. Mayhew sold his federal groundfish permit to The Nature Conservancy, which has partnered with the Vineyard Trust. In such a small community, Lovewell knows of these successes and challenges.
“The history and culture of Martha's Vineyard is founded on and still intertwined with the traditions and character of the commercial fishermen that have plied their business here for hundreds of years. Mark is simultaneously preserving the memory of traditional songs and creating new stories based on the precious and threatened lifestyle of our local family fishermen. He pours his heart into capturing the spirit, danger, and joy of making a living at sea," said Shelley Edmundson, executive director of the Vineyard Trust.
Lovewell believes the industry is regaining strength and personality.
As he scudded along windy Menemsha like a balloon knocked by the breeze, several people stopped to catch up. He gestured to one section of the dock, reserved for commercial fishermen. Chilmark selectmen are standing strong on that, Lovewell said, adding that it is not always easy as they feel pressure from other interests.
Jonathan Mayhew, Gregory’s brother, called Lovewell over to talk about a recent CD he listened to by a musician named Jon Campbell. Lovewell knows and respects him.
The two had been to Fisherpoets Gatherings in Astoria, Washington to perform. Lovewell has been a few times and plans to go again to the event billed as “a cultural reunion for far-flung friends in the commercial fishing fleet.”
Several years ago, he was invited by the New Bedford Whaling Museum to come on Saturdays and sing folk songs about his family’s whaling heritage. Lovewell is a descendant of Valentine Pease, who was the captain of a whaling ship Herman Melville worked on before he wrote “Moby Dick.”
The museum later sent him to Hawaii and Alaska to share stories of his forbearers. He spent six weeks touring high schools and it reminded him that he was a folk singer at their age.
“I was always singing folk songs as a kid,” he said, inspired by Bob Dylan and the Kingston Trio.
His dad was a civil engineer, called to Thailand during the Vietnam War. Lovewell started singing for GIs in bars in Bangkok.
“I got really good at performing, so I dropped out of high school and left and settled in San Franciso,” Lovewell said.
He was 16, wanted to be a writer and a poet, but the heyday of Haight-Ashbury had ended so he hopped a freight train and came East.
“I moved to New York City because that’s where you wanted to be if you wanted to be the next Bob Dylan,” Lovewell said.
But he soon ended up on Martha’s Vineyard, which had been in his blood even longer than singing.
“I am a summer brat,” he said. “We used to come here in the summer.”
Lovewell moved to Edgartown with his former wife, Teresa Yuan, 41 years ago. He had already started writing, working for the New York Post. But in 1977 there was a newspaper strike so he came back to his summer stomping grounds. Hired to help with circulation at the Gazette, he worked his way into a writing gig and then took over an existing fishing column he admired.
For 25 years Lovewell spent time with commercial fishermen; he now happily lives across from a conch processing plant.
“I have memories of coming to Menemsha at night and they would be sitting here and baiting hooks with sea clams and telling stories,” said Lovewell, referring to the uneven dirt road that led to the Coast Guard boathouse.
One fisherman he became friends with, Jimmy Morgan, is a driving force behind the CD. Morgan, of Menemsha, got his start on the unpredictable waters of Georges Bank in 1942, later to swordfish with Louis Larsen and his brothers Bjarne and Dagbard. In 1975 Morgan bought the Mary and Verna, a 46-foot wooden dragger, which he captained until he turned 81.
Morgan passed away last year, but not before Lovewell learned the song Shoals of Herring, by Ewan MacColl.
“He asked me to learn it the year before he sold his boat,” Lovewell said. A stanza goes:
“In the stormy seas and the living gales/Just to earn your daily bread you're daring/From the Dover Straits to the Faroe Islands/As you're following the shoals of herring.”
As stocks and commercial fishing on the island recover, Lovewell says fishing songs are less of a dirge than they were a decade ago.
Fishing Boat Sarah tells that tale:
“I don’t know what you are talking about/This small boat belongs out here/We’re doing alright/Sarah carry us home. “