An afternoon sun casts soft patterns of light into the Southern Maryland farmhouse. In the distance, the broad Patuxent River is a band of gold. Inside, Tom Wisner recollects summertimes along his boyhood creek in 1930s Washington, the start of his journey that has inspired generations of Chesapeake Bay dwellers.
The stream—he called it Cray Crab Crick—was alive with shiners, rosy-sided dace, turtles, crayfish, and amphibians. It trickled through woods near his home on DC’s southeastern fringe, flowing into Oxon Run, the Potomac, then the Chesapeake. Wisner reaches for a worn guitar, never far from his side, and sings in a baritone still rich at age 78:
And when we’d travel home from
We’d linger by the streams and pools,
To sing a rosy minnow melody.
Talk to crawdads, dance with frogs,
And walk across on wobbly logs. . . .
One day ’round a shady bend
I became the water’s friend
And we promised we would carry to
the end. . . .
Most of his book learning, the art and music study, the graduate science at Cornell, was still to come. Yet that scruffy thread of flowing water would inform his life.
“It was magical,” Wisner says. “How to encourage that in modern children, so divorced from nature, is something I’m still struggling with. Today you can Google ‘streams’ and ‘turtles,’ but Google does not foster contemplation and learning like seeing a turtle in a creek.”
A year after graduating from Anacostia High in 1949, Wisner enlisted in the Air Force. Returning from Korea in 1954, he sought out old haunts, only to find his stream gone. “Well-meaning entrepreneurs making more homes for people had obliterated the essence of the life that I imagined I had gone off to war to protect,” he wrote later to a friend.
He began to feel that whatever in society fosters free-flowing streams is good and what harms them is not. He’s carried that philosophy to bigger waters as a Chesapeake Bay educator, singer, poet, and storyteller—a career that’s spanned more than 40 years and produced some of the region’s most authentic music. Songs such as “Wild River,” an ode to the Patuxent, where he settled; “Dredgin’ Is My Drudgery,” a celebration of oystering the bay; and “Chesapeake Born” have become enduring parts of the bay’s lyric. They not only evoke Chesapeake cultures but show a scientist’s grasp of the natural system.
The late Moses Asch of Folkways Records, which published Wisner’s first album in 1979, called his songs “unique in the nation.” Asch said he wasn’t aware of another body of music specifically about a bioregion.
“Chesapeake Born” was written in 1974. See how it renders what consumes scientific treatises to explain the mixing of marine and river systems that create North America’s greatest estuary:
She’s the mother of the waters and people of
Forty river children reach to take her by
And flow through Maryland and Virginia
to the sea.
She’s Atlantic born, Atlantic bound, and free.
“Chesapeake Born” should replace the outdated “Maryland, My Maryland” as our state song, I tell Wisner. “Never!” he says. “Fastest way to kill a song I know of.” But he has applauded a legislative effort to make another of his songs, “The Land, Maryland,” the first state children’s song.
Sometimes Wisner would kid around after singing the chorus of “Chesapeake Born,” which goes like this: Chesapeake born and bound to thee, / ’Deed I am, I’m Chesapeake free. He’d grin and add: Chesapeake born, Chesapeake bred, /And when I’m gone / Be Chesapeake dead!
That lyric rings a little hollow these days as he deals with a long-undiagnosed lung cancer. Sometimes the coughing makes him stop and rest as he pushes to complete his last CDs. “We are a culture that fears dying,” he says. “I am scared of the last part. I don’t want to be struggling like hell to breathe. But mostly this has made me focus each day on how very grateful I am for this life and this bay and this planet.”
Wisner has taken to singing duets with a Carolina wren around his rented house north of Solomons: “Its rhythmic intervals are so different from mine, but I’ve learned to anticipate where the wren will interject his song. He’s a friend now.”
Wisner’s friends are everywhere in the house. Drums, keyboards, guitars, banjos, rattles—all crammed in among bones and skulls and shells, fossil ear bones of whales, and giant sharks’ teeth he’s picked up from nearby Calvert Cliffs. He shows off a fossil oyster he found, bigger than a man’s hand: Open the shells and inside is a smooth black mound, the preserved meat of the ancient bivalve.