Portsmouth Maritime Folk Festival

The streets of Portsmouth will ring with the music of the sea.  Singers and musicians wander the sidewalks downtown, and the sounds of sea shanties and forebitters waft through the doorways of nearly a dozen venues all within a block or two of Market Square.

The Portsmouth Maritime Folk Festival, celebrating 20 glorious years, is an annual celebration of the city’s rich maritime heritage, which dates back to the original English settlement in 1630 and continues today in the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, across the Piscataqua River in Kittery, and with maritime businesses on both sides of the river.

Sea shanties, the rhythmic work songs that helped sailors coordinate their efforts while raising or lowering sails and anchors, recall the whalers and other wooden ships that were built along the Piscataqua and sailed out of Portsmouth in the 19th century.  Forebitters, were songs that sailors sang for relaxation and amusement around the forebitts, stanchions to which ropes and cables were secured near the bow.  These songs may recall the naval victories of Piscataqua-built warships and the exploits of Portsmouth-based privateers in the War of 1812, but they could be about anything—pirate escapades, Jack Tar’s romances ashore and at sea, mothers and sweethearts, popular songs of the day, hymns, bawdy ditties and whatever else could relieve the tedium of a long voyage and lift the spirits of the seamen between watches. Contemporary sea songs will be heard along with the old favorites, and the public is enthusiastically encouraged to join in the fun.

Our Story:

The inspiration for the Portsmouth Maritime Folk Festival comes from festivals that co-founders Peter Contrastano and Jeff Warner had enjoyed in the British Isles. In the British style, festivals aren’t confined to a park or fairground at the edge of a community, rather, performances and events are sprinkled throughout the downtown area, bringing the entertainment to where the people are. With Portsmouth’s lovely, historic town center, it seemed an ideal place for such an event.

Startup was modest, with a 1999 outdoors concert of sea music on the grounds of Strawbery Banke Museum. Response to the small afternoon event was enthusiastic and Contrastano felt encouraged to expand the event.

Warner wasn’t available that first weekend but the two had talked, and they began to collaborate towards a full weekend-long festival the following year. In 2000, the Festival spread throughout the town, bringing music to the people in the restaurants and in the pubs. The “quarterdeck” was in the center of town near Market Square, catching people walking by. An area was set aside on the brick sidewalk for street performances and merchandise sales, and local bakeries, cafés and pubs offered up indoor space for performances.

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