HardTackers: A decade-long journey of seafaring lore

HardTackers: A decade-long journey of seafaring lore

Ohio is the only state in the union with a burgee flag — a shape usually associated with a boating organization. The flag commemorates Ohio’s water transportation history: the miles of Lake Erie shoreline, the Ohio River, and the waterways and once-extensive network of canals in between.

So a crew of sea-shanty-singing Midwesterners isn’t as out of place as it might first appear; Ohio has plenty of wet to sing about. 

Enter the HardTackers. With their mastery of maritime know-how and their banter-filled harmonizing, the ensemble has entertained at festivals and other events in the U.S. and Canada for a decade. 

The HardTackers, a sea shanty singing group

Founded in 2009, the HardTackers were named for hardtack, the staple biscuit of sailors, and tacking, the sailing maneuver.

A historic ship

Shanties date to the mid-1400s era of tall ships, when sailors’ work was grueling and labor-intensive. The rhythms of the call-and-response style of shanty songs helped the crew push and pull, hoisting sails and hauling lines in a synchronized effort. Often adapted from familiar folk tunes and ballads of the day, shanty lyrics were flavored with nautical terms and names of places the sailors had been — or hoped to see. ]

A HardTackers performance is a rollicking, participatory trip through seafaring time. With each member taking turns as the boisterous lead, the Tackers nimbly belt out a repertoire that includes the familiar “Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal,” as well as songs like “The Bonny Ship The Diamond,” about the lure of quick riches to whaling crews who dream of “bonny lassies.” Then there’s “Whiskey Johnny,” a cheery-sounding cautionary tale about the dangers of drunkenness — all peppered with jokes and puns and a mini-history about their origins. 

Named for hardtack, the staple biscuit of sailors, and tacking, the sailing maneuver, the HardTackers got their start in 2009. John Locke, a member of the Columbus Folk Music Society, helped band the group together as the official shanty-singing crew of the Santa Maria — the life-size replica of Christopher Columbus’ flagship that was then moored along the Scioto River in downtown Columbus. Even after that ship was scuttled in 2014, camaraderie and love for folk music have kept the 
a cappella group belting out their tales of adventure, mishap, lament, and longing.

Each of the members may have taken a different path to sea shanties — from a grandma’s closet filled with musical instruments, to singalongs, garage bands, bluegrass bands, and the 1960s folk music revival — but they share a love of the style and the showmanship. Says Tacker Andy Beyer, “It’s not too much of a stretch between a folk singer and a sea shanty singer. You have to be brave enough to not hide behind a guitar.” As for the notion that sea shanties mean pirates: “We’ll pretend we’re pirates if there’s money in it,” he laughs.

Linda Bolla, a committee chair of the Erie Tall Ships Festival, loves the good-time feeling of a HardTackers concert. “I love their sense of humor,” she says. “Not every performer has that much fun. You can feel the good vibe of the audience response — their ability to reach out and bring the audience into the performance, whether through the songs or the stories, is unique. They bring an authenticity and tradition of 400 years of seafaring history.”

Like sailors who’ve weathered storms, the HardTackers have ridden the waves of change. Locke retired from the group a few years ago, and of the six original members, only Beyer and Rennie Beetham remain — though Larry Drake and Joe Cook have been there almost from the start. 

The HardTackers have moved on from the Santa Maria and are now the unofficial/official crew of the Flagship Niagara — a reproduction of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s victorious brig from the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812. The Niagara is the star attraction of the Erie Maritime Museum, and during Tall Ships festivals all along Lake Erie, the HardTackers are a highlight.

In July 2019, the HardTackers released their fourth CD, appropriately named Rise Again. Now, after a hiatus due to COVID-19, the HardTackers are back to in-person Tuesday rehearsals like they’ve done for 11 years, getting ready for their next voyage. 

The HardTackers are slated to perform at the Dublin Irish Festival in August. The next Tall Ships Festival in Erie, Pennsylvania, is in 2022.