News & Politics

Songs of the Chesapeake

With an old guitar and a lifelong passion for every creek and stream of the bay, Tom Wisner’s verses and stories have become enduring parts of the region’s lore.

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

this land.

Forty river children reach to take her by

the hand

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. 

There are pages of lyrics, finished or in progress:

Are you governed OF, BY and FOR fishes,

Free to worship whomever you choose?

Do the laws your legislators have written

Insure that the fish never lose?

And this:

. . . Spent my life walkin’ south

On a northbound train.

Got those old black river bottom

Busted ecology blues.

Amid bay art and maps that paper the walls is a series of pen-and-ink drawings Wisner has done of his “elemental people.” Country people, watermen, bay captains—he’s devoted decades to collecting their stories, a trove that’s largely unpublished but headed for a new archive he calls Chestory, at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons. Such people’s lives and work were to him the essential artistic expression of the Chesapeake’s land and waters.

There’s Jake Sollers, an old bachelor farmer who died in the room where Wisner now sleeps. Jake read the complete works of Winston Churchill and would entertain Wisner in the evenings with the changes he’d witnessed in the Southern Maryland scene. Wisner immortalized this in “Southern Maryland River Country Way”: Hands that hooked the oxen to the hogsheads rollin’ by / Guide a rusty tractor under jet streams in the sky.

Near Jake’s picture is the sun-puckered face of Susannah Brinsfield, captain of the bay schooner Ward in an era when few women worked outside the home. Wisner spied Susie outside her cabin chopping wood when she was in her mid-nineties. He helped until it began snowing hard, then offered to come in and chat. “Ain’t no way you’re gettin’ me inside that cabin alone!” she scolded.

There’s Watt Herbert, a courtly Virginia waterman who told Wisner of his distaste for trophy sports fishermen who take big fish they neither sell nor eat. Like cats, Watt said, “they both just like killing, but the cat is a better class of people. He never told nobody he ever was any kind of civilized.”

And Art Daniels, a skipjack captain who, with Wisner aboard, brought his dredge boat into Solomons harbor under full sail, a feat few would attempt. Daniels cut it close before pivoting his City of Crisfield to come alongside the pier. As he turned, the boat’s bowsprit raked down the dock’s edge, scattering onlookers before expertly thrown mooring ropes brought her shuddering to a halt. Wisner’s recounting of this incident on his forthcoming CD is world-class storytelling.

For about a decade, beginning in the mid-1960s, all of this was actually part of Wisner’s job as the Chesapeake’s first environmental educator. He was hired by the late L. Eugene Cronin, who directed most of Maryland’s bay science at two laboratories on the Patuxent and Choptank rivers.

Wisner recalls: “Gene told me, ‘We’ve got the mind of the Chesapeake here, but you’ve got to give us the heart, get out with the scientists and the elemental people and communicate with the public about it.’ ”

Those were heady times for Wisner, the former high-school science teacher whose artistic talents were coming to the fore. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation was just beginning, as was national awareness of environmental problems, leading to the first Earth Day in 1970; maritime museums at St. Michaels and Solomons were also starting up. Wisner was in the thick of it all, writing, singing, performing, educating out of his “Chesapeake classrooms” at the state lab on the Patuxent at Solomons.

“And the river—oh, God, it was so alive,” he says. “At lunch I would snorkel through the thick underwater grasses watching seahorses, pipefish, and the young of so many fish.”

Wisner built plastic-sided aquariums, big enough for kids to wade in. He observed that the crabs, for reasons he still doesn’t understand, would become active every evening and crawl animatedly along the sides of their holding tanks: “I would take people down there and strike up my banjo, and they were convinced I could make the crabs dance.”

Wisner might have made a living as a writer, sculptor, singer, or painter, but he chose to bring those talents to bear on educating kids. “I think the reason we’re here on this planet is to learn,” he says. “And I think if a child can learn to see the world as a scientist, why not also as an artist?”

The children inspired him, too. “I wonder if people wonder what it is like to be a crab?” a young student wrote. Wisner had always wondered this himself, and he answered with a song, “Dance Sideways”:

I wonder if some people ever wonder

what it’s like

To be thrown in a kettle, have the lid

snapped tight.

You wander in the darkness, you can’t

find your way around,

You’re destined to become the tastiest

treat in town

When you’re steamed alive, oh yeah . . . .

Disillusioned by his mentor Cronin’s ouster from power and divorced from the mother of his five children, Wisner left his job with the University of Maryland in the mid-1970s and began the life of a wandering minstrel of the bay.

“I find I can scarcely afford to die,” he says, looking over mounting medical bills.

For several years in the 1980s, he taught a Chesapeake humanities course of his own design through the University of Maryland’s University College. He wrote and illustrated his own textbook, which won an award from the university in 1987.

But perhaps Wisner’s most important contribution to the lore of the Chesapeake will turn out to be a poem, “A Guide to Wading in the Southern Maryland Waters.” It’s the story of Bernie Fowler, a Southern Maryland politician who gloried in the natural abundance of the Patuxent in his youth in the 1930s. By the ’70s, Fowler saw signs of the river’s decline, though officials dismissed his concerns.

He’d tell anyone who cared to listen how he could once wade out shoulder deep to net crabs in the river-bottom grasses, able to see his feet clearly. In 1979, thanks to testimony from scientists at the Solomons lab where Wisner had worked, Fowler and other citizens won a historic lawsuit that ordered Maryland and the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the river.

The Patuxent became a template for the restoration of the Chesapeake, still years away. By 1986, important battles had been won, but the war to save the Patuxent was still not going well. That year, Wisner decided that the bay—and the planet—needed to invent new stories, new myths, to counter the “use nature for all she’s worth” attitude. He’d make the story of Bernie seeking clear water, wading and seeing his toes, part of his performances.

He published his poem in the Baltimore Sun. The poem suggested an annual Bernie Fowler Day, a public wade-in from the Patuxent shores, where all would seek their toes, a baptism, a resurrection. The poem ended this way:

’Cause I ask you what’s the profit

If we gain these worldly things

And foul the air and water

And all the life that brings?

Fowler agreed to take part. The first wade-in, with about 15 people, took place in 1988. It grew along with Fowler’s legend. The legislature declared the second Sunday in June Bernie Fowler Day. National Geographic featured it in 1993. Politicians began to come. A film, Preacher Man of the Patuxent, was made. The river’s cleanup had it all: scientific and political attention, powerful friends, lots of visibility, and an icon in Bernie Fowler.

But at the 20th anniversary of the wade-in, scientists still gave the Patuxent’s health a D-minus. The grasses were gone as well as the oysters and most of the crabs and fish. The water remained so murky that the “sneaker index” the EPA had developed as a semi-scientific play on Bernie’s seeing his feet seemed a mockery. A Sun editorial called the 20th wade-in “a parody of itself.” The river’s degraded state had become the accepted norm, it said.

Fowler and Wisner had feared this, had talked about the collective “loss of memory” of what used to be there. Wisner says there’s a deeper problem—that our political leaders simply aren’t making the tough decisions needed to restore the bay and its rivers: “There’s something wrong when our way of life desperately challenges the rest of nature’s ability to exist, and our way of governing doesn’t remedy this at all.”

Lately, Wisner’s been thinking about another friend of the bay who liked to wade in the waters, an old Piscataway Indian named Turkey Tyac who introduced Wisner to the practice of wading into bay rivers as a ritual of renewal and cleansing. With this in mind, Wisner’s been messing with a new ending to his Bernie Fowler poem:

Old Turkey Ty, the Piscatawa,

Waded in at summer solstice;

He did it to renew his soul. . . .

Now the politicians strut and posture,

Waxing ever eloquent

’Til they became the story

And we wondered where the river went.

But the story is the river

Of, by and for . . . no quarter!

It’s about the folks all gathered up

Of, by and for clean water!

Wisner is still searching for better words, Maybe a little edgier, he says, but not cynical—though he’s feeling that way sometimes now.

He leans back and closes his eyes. The last of the daylight falls on his face, recently robbed of hair and that magnificent full beard by chemotherapy. A song I’ve never heard him sing lies on the keyboard:

. . . Same song sung for fewer fish.

It’s not the deal we made

When she talked to the boy

By Cray Crab Crick near 70 years ago.

People from the museum are coming tomorrow to take more of his tapes and papers for the Chestory archive at the Calvert Marine Museum. This is his dream now, he says—to make his music and stories of nature and the elemental people accessible to anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the Chesapeake region.

“It’s about using what I’ve done in my life as a model for what could be done,” he says. “The Garrison Keillor of the Chesapeake hasn’t come along yet. When he does, he’ll need this stuff.”

This article first appeared in the June 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.