'Salt Water People': A Mystic Play About Long Island's Baymen
A father and son set out for a final fishing run together and catch a mystical sea creature in the waters off Long Island. That’s the plot of a new play called, “Salt Water People.” It documents the culture, folklore and language of the baymen fishing community in East Hampton.
WSHU's All Things Considered Host Bill Buchner recently spoke with the play's author Jake Rosenberg, a co-founder of American Lore Theater. Below is a transcript of their conversation.
BUCHNER: Jake, you describe yourself as a folklorist. Why is that?
ROSENBERG: I currently work for a folklore culture center and an archive at City Lore in lower Manhattan. But in addition to that I study and work alongside traditional communities that are practicing all types of living traditions, passed from person to person, and that is folklore in the contemporary world.
BUCHNER: Those of us over a certain age first learned about the baymen, I think, with a Billy Joel song, The Downeaster 'Alexa.' How did you learn about the baymen?
ROSENBERG: I actually learned about them through that song as well. That’s not what sparked my interest for this play. I am really fascinated by dialects. I think that is something that really tells a lot about a culture, an occupation, a family way of life. And I first learned about the baymen through studying the Bonacker, or Bonack, dialect, which is a way of speaking that people out in East Hampton that have been descended from the original colonial settlers still speak. And there’s still survivals in this dialect all the way back from Elizabethian English. It’s really fascinating.
BUCHNER: Some of the baymen are called Bonackers. What is a Bonacker?
ROSENBERG: So a Bonacker, you have to be from one of the original families that settled on the East End of Long Island. You know if you’ve been around for 290 years, not the full 300, you still can’t be a Bonacker. But a bayman is someone who fishes or clams the Bays of Long Island. So it’s possible to have a Bonacker be a bayman, but they’re not always synonymous.
BUCHNER: And what’s happening here? Why is the culture of the baymen fading?
ROSENBERG: Well basically they have been regulated out of existence, well not completely out of existence, but definitely not at the levels that they once were. And basically that’s because the DEC [Department of Environmental Conservation] and a bunch of other regulatory organizations have created all of these laws that are in a lot of ways discriminatory against the baymen.They don’t allow for catching in the traditional way. They are putting in policies that sometimes favor larger companies that are able to have an industrial harvest of the bay, which actually winds up really hurting some of the smaller fishermen and fishing operations that have been doing this for hundreds of years, passed from generation to generation.
BUCHNER: You highlight the dialect of the baymen in your play. Can you give us an example of that dialect?
ROSENBERG: I cannot speak it myself. I wish that I could. For example, it actually comes from the original English dialect from some of the places these people where. So for example instead of “catch” you would have “kitch.” They’ll also have certain terms that only Bonackers would use, like “bub.” They’ll say “yes, yes bub” or “bubby.” And that sort of refers to any fisherman or farmer Bonacker out there.
BUCHNER: Could you tell us a little more about the plot of "Salt Water People"?
ROSENBERG: So "Salt Water People" concerns a family of baymen, focusing on the patriarch, a guy by the name of Chris King. And he is facing some of the challenges that a lot of baymen face. There is industrial runoff that is polluting the water. There are regulations that are making it really difficult for him to finance his home and more importantly, his son’s education. And his son is interested in becoming a marine biologist who eventually goes on to a career that puts him at odds with his family traditions. So there’s this relationship between the two of them which is exacerbated and sort of fired up by a mystical catch, a creature, that is off the coast of Long Island. And I don’t want to give too much away but when they pull that out of the water, the sparks really start to fly.