Wow, what a ride!
Shifty Sailors pass the leadership baton
— Created September 28, 2022 by Kathy Reed
By Kathy Reed
For 28 years, Vern Olsen has been the driving force of the Shifty Sailors, Whidbey Island’s much beloved, internationally known men’s chorus famous for performing songs of the sea.
But Olsen’s time leading the group is coming to an end and the leadership baton will officially pass to longtime group member, Jim Lightner. The momentous event will be marked by a special concert Sunday, Oct. 9 at 2 p.m. at the Coupeville Rec Hall. Tickets are $20 per person and are available in advance at Wind and Tide Books in Oak Harbor, bayleaf in Coupeville, Blooms in Freeland and the Greenbank Cheese Shop. Beer and wine will be available for purchase at the concert. Find more at shiftysailors.net or look them up on Facebook.
Last week, over a cup of herbal tea at Callen’s Restaurant in Coupeville, the 82-year-old Olsen was happy to discuss why he feels now is the right time to step down from his leadership role with the group.
“I’m retiring, not from the Shifty Sailors, just as the director,” he said. “I did all the work. I did all the preparation. I did all the arranging, I did all the research, I wrote out all the songs. I scheduled our trips, I did all the housing – I did everything. I don’t have to do that anymore. I made every performance in 27 years, so now I don’t have to go unless I want to.”
Olsen founded the Shifty Sailors nearly 30 years ago, in 1993. What was supposed to be a single performance with a few friends to help promote the sale of the book “Sails, Steamships and Sea Captains” for the Island County Historical Museum, turned into a musical journey of nearly three decades for Olsen. But he’ll be the first to admit it’s been much more than just a group of guys singing sea shanties.
“This has been one of the only times I know of where males have bonded and it’s not over sports,” he said. “And I’m not a typical choral director. I’ve always listened to their ideas. It was collaborative.”
When one thinks of sea shanties, it is usually the rhythmic chanting of sailors as they would hoist the sail or heave in the anchor that comes to mind. Olsen said he had a different vision of what the group could be from the very beginning.
“I never considered it a shanty group; I considered it a male vocal group that did songs of the sea,” he said a little wistfully, lamenting just a little bit over days gone by and fellow members gone too soon.
“I miss the original group. We were all musicians,” he shared. “Now, it’s a shanty group. The harmony is not there. Shanties are grunt songs, they’re work songs, so they don’t have to be pretty. I’m a choral man. I love working with harmony. With the new group, it gets less and less [like choral] every year.”
As a former elementary school music teacher who comes from a musical family, it made sense to Olsen to put more into the music the Shifty Sailors would perform. And the teacher in him was able to do some research to justify his love of harmony.
“My argument was, on sailing ships there was a place called the forecastle, which was usually shortened to the ‘fo’c’sle,’” Olsen explained. “It was a place where the crew could rest and relax, and that’s when they would sing songs that were nostalgic, more of the choral songs. They were really present on the sailing ships, but they were not the work songs.”
Membership in the Shifty Sailors has fluctuated over the years. It started with about seven or eight and has bloomed to as many as 20 singers. It currently hovers around a dozen or so members. In the beginning, the group performed mostly in the local area, but that began to change when the Shifty Sailors’ first album was released in 1999.
“All of a sudden, we got some exposure – national exposure,” said Olsen. “The national exposure came from the editor of “Wooden Boat” magazine. He did an editorial on the Shifty Sailors. He said something like ‘This is totally different…this is a cut above all the rest.’ That really got us started branching out.”
Branching out is a modest way to describe the Shifty Sailors’ success. The group has toured in Europe four times, performing concerts in at least 12 countries. There have been two west coast tours and members have performed in Washington, D.C. several times. And the group has now released six albums.
With four European tours under his belt, there are bound to be some fond recollections. Olsen easily shared a couple of his favorites.
“I was knighted in Latvia,” he said. “Two hundred years ago the area was known as Livonia. The people there work hard to keep the history of the area alive. We went up to the top of a castle, where a group of performers shared the story of their heritage. It was fabulous. After, one of the performers asked, ‘Who here is important?’ They all pointed me out as the leader and he said, ‘I am going to knight you. What do you want to be called?’”
Olsen grinned as he described settling on the name “Sir Squeeze,” because he plays the squeeze box (accordion) and he likes to “give people a squeeze.”
“They did it with a sword and I got down on my knees,” he recalled. “That was a real neat thing. Other than that, I don’t know, there’s just so many things. We’ve made so many friends, we really have. It’s just been a treat.”
Olsen’s love and appreciation for his years leading the Shifty Sailors pales only in comparison to the obvious love and affection he feels for his family. He still travels with his surviving brother and sisters (one of whom is his twin), when they have the opportunity. His face lights up completely when he talks about meeting his wife of 51 years, Martha, and shares how he serenaded her with a guitar by Green Lake in Seattle on their first date. The pride is evident when he talks about their two children and their accomplishments.
It’s also clear Olsen is happy with other things he’s accomplished outside of the classroom. He and Martha started Small Miracles, a medical support fund for residents in the Coupeville School District, 15 years ago. To date, Olsen said the nonprofit has provided about a quarter of a million dollars in assistance to people in the community in that time. It’s a passion project for Olsen, and he plans to continue working with the group. He’d also like to restart an ostomy support group he and a nurse from WhidbeyHealth started several years ago that was interrupted by construction at the medical center and then by the pandemic.
It’s also only natural music figures into his future plans.
“I love to go to concerts,” he said. “I believe in live music. I think I’m going to do more busking on my own. And the Island County Historical Museum has something where you can share songs about a certain part of history – that’s on my agenda. Things where I don’t have to worry about getting anyone else involved.”
While he is hopeful choral music will figure into the “new” Shifty Sailors repertoire, Olsen is looking forward to his final “official” concert next weekend.
“So many people are so eager to hear us sing. The program will include a section of some favorite songs, then there will be a short intermission,” he explained. “The second section will be the ‘new’ guys, then there will be another intermission. The last section will be our closing, which will be a lot of memories.”
Memories are what Olsen takes with him from his leadership role in the Shifty Sailors, memories are what he said people will take away from the concert, and memories figure into the soft melody – “Memories of a Friend,” written long ago by his father – that he sings quietly across the table as our interview comes to a close.
“Memories. Memories – my whole life is memories,” he said. “I don’t want to forget any of them.”
The bitter, the better, the highs, the lows, the big, the small – Olsen treasures them all. The Shifty Sailors will forever hold a very special place in his memories.
“This has been a highlight of my life, it really has been,” he said. “Wow, what a ride!”