In St. Michaels, Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum protects and preserves many historical ships that embody the heritage of the Chesapeake. One of these is The Rosie Parks, built by Bronza Parks, a legendary ship builder and pillar of his community. In 1958, Parks was working on another skipjack-style sailboat for a client named Willis Rowe. During a confrontation regarding the cost of the project, Rowe shot the boat builder three times, killing him. Rowe was eventually convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 18 years in prison. Local musician Michael Kelly was so inspired by the story of Bronza Parks, he wrote a song entitled The Boatbuilder in tribute to him.
I set out to find singer-songwriter Michael Kelly and ask him how the Chesapeake shapes him as a musician.
I was born in Chicago, but I grew up in Virginia. We grew up in the suburbs, but we spent a ton of time running around the mountains and the country. I moved away as a young man, but came back to the Chesapeake when I got addicted to wind surfing. I’ve been here in the Chesapeake for 30 years now.
You have two songs that are distinctly connected to the Chesapeake—The Boatbuilder and The Waterman. How has the Chesapeake region influenced your songwriting?
Obviously it has influenced me in the fact that it is my environment. I live so close to it, when I play guitar at my house I’m looking out at the bay. It is an integral part of my music. The Boatbuilder and The Waterman are story songs and both of those came about through a lot of experiences.
I used to do the music for the Sandy Point Watermen’s Festival. The song came directly from the interactions I had with the watermen at the festival. Talking to them, I would hear the same story over and over again of three or four generations of a family who all worked the water, but the kids saw no future and were moving on the other things. The cost of keeping the boat was getting to be prohibitive, and oyster catches were bad and getting worse. I pictured it almost like the demise of the cowboy in the American West. To me it had the same kind of historical significance. In the song, I try to explain the hardships of the life of a waterman.
The Boatbuilder came about a whole different way. I heard an interview by WRNR’s Michael Buckley on his show "Voices of the Chesapeake". He was talking to Mary Parks Harding who told the story of her father, boatbuilder Bronza Parks. I thought, ‘Well, that’s a bluegrass song if I ever heard one.’ I did more research – what an amazing and tragic story. The melody came to me pretty quickly and I already had the story sketched out, so the song came together really fast.
After I recorded the song, I wrote a letter to Mary Parks Harding and told her about it. She called me and said how much she liked the song and we talked about her Dad.
The more I researched, the more I realized what a tragedy it was for someone to shoot him. He was such a pillar in his community and there are so many great stories about him. Mary told me a story about being in the office with her dad one day. She said Bronza would hire anybody. At that time it was the Great Depression and a lot of people couldn’t find work anywhere. He was the main employer in his whole area on the Eastern Shore. Mary said a guy came into the office and said he needed work. Bronza looked at him and asked, “What can you do?” She said he looked down and shuffled his feet some and said, “To tell you the truth, I can’t do much of anything.” Bronza jumped up and said, “You’re hired! You’re just the man I’m looking for!” He wanted someone with no preconceptions about his business that he could mold. She said that guy ended up being a real good worker and worked for him for a long time.
This is another story that is pretty well known. A workman was electrocuted while working under a house and they couldn’t get him to the hospital on time because they didn’t have an ambulance. That really bothered Bronza Parks. He went door-to-door and took donations and if people didn’t have money, he asked them to give what they could and he would write down the amount and offer to give it back to them if something came up. People trusted him and he was able to gather enough money to buy the first ambulance in Wingate, Maryland. Eventually he donated the property next to his boatyard and that, to this day, is where the firehouse stands in Wingate. Bronza Parks was not only a great artist but a positive force in his community as well.
I was invited to play at the Oyster Fest there one year and the stage was set up about 50 yards away from the Rosie Parks, which was just awesome. I saw the ship after the restoration and it’s beautiful. There is no denying it. I think it was important to restore. It’s an iconic part of the Bay culture. I love that museum and there’s something in every part of it for people to learn. That’s why people go there. People want to know what their roots are. They want to know a little bit about what the history of this place was. In terms of the Bay’s health, I think if people can appreciate this history, they're more likely to become involved and take care of what we have.
Whenever I play The Boatbuilder, I tell people, “Go out to St. Michaels and visit the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.” You can go out there and see the Rosie Parks and learn more about Bronza Parks. You can go for a ride if you’re there at the right time.
Every place has a different flavor, so I can’t say I have a favorite. I love the Chesapeake and you take in each spot differently. I love Sandy Point State Park, especially in the wintertime when it’s not as crowded. I spend a lot of time hiking there and taking pictures. The amount of wildlife you see, even this close to home, is amazing. Even where I live in the Cape St. Claire area of Annapolis, you can still see the occasional deer, maybe a muskrat, and foxes running around. There used to be a ton of swans every winter and that was such a mesmerizing sound when they would fly by. Then in the springtime there would be enormous schools of skates. If you were out in the water and you disturbed them, everything around you would erupt. It’s just a really cool, diverse place to live.
To learn more about Mike Kelly and where he is performing, please visit his website.
Introducing visitors to the Bay story, and telling the Chesapeake's maritime history on the Eastern Shore. The museum houses examples of historic bay working boats, exhibits, guns, decoys, ship models and the 1879 Hooper Strait Lighthouse.
Sandy Point State Park is located in Anne Arundel county just before the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The 786 acre park provides a variety of recreational opportunities such as swimming, fishing, crabbing, boating, and windsurfing.