Executive Director Jake Rosenberg goes on NPR's All Things Considered to discuss Bonackers, Baymen and all things Salt Water People!
NPR: A father and son catch a mystical sea creature in the waters of Long Island. That's the basic plot of a new play called Salt Water People. It documents the culture, folklore and language of the bay men and fishing community in East Hampton. The play will be read this Sunday at the Oyster Bay Historical Society. Jake Rosenberg wrote the play. He is a co founder of American Lore theater. Jake joins me now on Skype. Hello, Jake.
JR: Hi, Bill. How are you?
NPR: Good. Thanks, Jake. you describe yourself as a folklorist. Why is that?
JR: I currently work for a folklore Cultural Center and an archive at City lore in lower Manhattan. But in addition to that, I study and work alongside traditional communities that are practicing all kinds of living traditions passed from person to person, and that is folklore in the contemporary world.
NPR: Those of us over a certain age first learned about the Baymen I think with a Billy Joel song, The down Easter Alexa. How did you learn about the baymen?
JR: I actually learned about them through that song as well. That's not what sparked my interest for this play though. I am really fascinated by dialects. I think that is something that really tells a lot about a culture and occupation of family way of life. And I first learned about the baymen through studying the Bonacker or Bonac dialect, which is a way of speaking that people on East Hampton that have been descended from the original colonial settlers still speak and there are still survivals in this dialect all the way back from Elizabeth in English. It's really fascinating.
NPR: Some of the Bay men are called bonackers. What is a bonacker?
JR: So to be a Bonacker you have to be from one of the original families that settled on the east end of Long Island. So you know, if you've been around for 290 years, not the full 300 you still can't be a Bonacker... but a Bay man is somebody who fishes or clams the bays of Long Island. So it's possible to have a Bonacker be a Baymen. But they're not always synonymous.
NPR: Why is the culture of the Bayman fading?
JR: Well, basically they have been regulated out of existence for- Well, not completely out of existence, but definitely not at the levels that they once were. And basically, that's because the DEC and a bunch of other regulatory organizations have created all of these laws that are in a lot of ways discriminatory against the bay men. They don't allow for catching in the traditional way. They are putting in policies that sometimes favor larger companies that are able to have an industrial harvest of the bay, which actually winds up really hurting some of the smaller fishermen and fishing operations that have been doing this for hundreds of years passed from generation to generation.
NPR: You highlight the dialogue of the Bay Men in your play, can you give us an example of the dialect?
JR: I cannot speak it myself. I wish that I could. But for example, it's sort of actually comes from the original English dialect from some of the places these people were. So for example, instead of "catch," you would have "citch." They'll also have certain terms that only Bonackers will use, like Bubby, they'll say, "yes, yes, Bub or Bubby." And that sort of refers to any fishermen or farmer Bonacker that's out there.
NPR: Could you tell us a little more about the plot of Salt Water People?
JR: So Salt Water People concerns a family of Bay men and focuses on the patriarch, a guy by the name of Chris King, and he is facing some of the challenges that a lot of Bay men face, there is industrial runoff that is polluting the water, there are regulations that are making it really difficult for him to finance his home, and most importantly, his son's education and his son is interested in becoming a marine biologist who eventually goes on to a career that puts him at odds with his family traditions. So there's this relationship between the two of them, which is exacerbated and sort of fired up by a mystical catch, a creature that is off the coast of Long Island and I don't want to give too much away, but when they pull that out of the water, the sparks really start to fly...
NPR: Salt Water People, it sounds fascinating. And Jake Rosenberg, thank you for coming on with us today.
JR: Thank you!
NPR: And a reading of salt water people will be held at 2pm this Sunday, November 3 at the Oyster Bay Historical Society on Long Island.