The Portsmouth Maritime Folk Festival (PMFF) was started over 20 years ago by Portsmouth NH residents, Jeff Warner and Peter Contrastano. It was modeled on the small maritime festivals in coastal towns and villages of the British Isles, where local pubs and other businesses would host small, intimate concerts while singers and small bands performed on the downtown sidewalks.
It is an annual celebration highlighting Portsmouth’s historic downtown’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.
The festival attracts a wide-ranging audience from all over New England and the Northeast. On the last weekend in September, the streets of Portsmouth 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 festival runs from 10 a.m. Saturday through Sunday afternoon, with a concert on Saturday evening.There is a Maritime Songwriting Competition on Saturday morning at 10:00; the winner will be invited to perform the winning song at the Saturday night concert.The grand finale of the festival is the Chantey Blast, a rollicking “all hands in” public sing in Market Square at 5:15 p.m. Sunday, with each of the weekend’s performers leading a song.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 forebitters, 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.The PMFF is a nonprofit enterprise, and the totally FREE festival is run by volunteers and financed entirely by donations.