I grew up in two cities, but my real coming-of-age happened in a sailing town along the Chesapeake Bay. With its ostentatious boat shows, colonial architecture, and annual croquet match between the rigorously traditional Naval Academy and the perennially liberal St John’s College, Annapolis is a town that at once revels in its old-world opulence and freely mocks it. There are the salty old sailors who still catch crabs in the creek and wash it down with a Natty Boh, and the WASPs who saunter down from their McMansions, decked to the eyeballs in Lilly Pulitzer and J Crew, to sip cocktails by the water.
In a town like Annapolis, you realize just how much of a communal monument a body of water can still be. Like a watering hole in the Serengeti, animals of all sizes and shapes and predatory influence collect to refresh, revitalize, and to feel just that much more alive. It is an attraction all its own, whether you are pulling up in a 100-foot, all-white yacht, or a dinghy that can only putter around the back creeks. Even when you are landlocked, just being beside it and watching the tide roll in as the boats come in and out of the aptly-named Ego Alley, there is something about the smell and the sounds that makes you feel like you are never tied down.
As a teenager, there are few better places to be. With the docks and the harbor and the little beaches, there is always a place to go. Just “hanging out by the water” became a pastime activity in its own — sneaking drinks, having long talks, setting off fireworks, or playing music. And playing music, it seemed, was always the tiny sun around which the solar system of our adolescent activity would turn. Someone would bring out a guitar or some hand drums, and we would all gather around as they busked by the water, hoping to get a dollar or two out of the more generous tourists walking by. The music, by nature of its proximity to the water, always had a distinctly reggae feel. There were easy melodies, simple percussion, and the kinds of hooks that lent themselves to staying around for just one more beer (or Dark and Stormy).
From as far back as I can remember, this was our music. Annapolis had formed a particular hybrid of acoustic, reggae, ska, and pop that made you close your eyes and hear the sounds of sailboats bobbing back and forth against the docks. And the people who produced and played the music became demigods all their own. They were the ones writing the stories, charting the invisible maps, and reminding everyone that — no matter how far we traveled — there would always be a bit of the water in all of us.
To this day, I listen to this song on any morning when I’m feeling a bit down, a bit like I will never carve out the kind of belonging that I felt like I had in my hometown. A quietly catchy song from a band I’ve loved for years, it sounds like all of the things I have ever missed about growing up. And it’s not just the longing lyrics or the familiar guitar playing — it’s something more innate that you develop when you are steeped in a certain kind of sound for so many years. While other people may hear Annapolis’ distinct style and brush it off as the white-guy-with-dreads-beach-strumming that it would be easy to interpret as, there is a richness that has developed within its sound that perhaps only makes sense to those who have learned to speak its language.
When I hear the music of a town that has grown up on punk, or who cut its teeth on hip-hop, I recognize that my ears can only catch a part of it. Someone else might never hear the way our music has echoes of the old sailing bars, or the feel of a hammer against a crab, or the optimism of a sunset behind a thousand bobbing masts, but we do. And when I put one of our songs on while walking down the streets of a city which could not be farther away — geographically or ideologically — it’s as if I’ve never left. Finally, there is someone who understands exactly what I mean when I try to describe the feel of a summer night on the cobblestones, listening to the waves lap against the dock.
A lot of people will talk vaguely about “supporting your local music scene,” or making an effort to listen to the bands who define the town you grew up in. And it’s easy to forget, when you are surrounded by it, just how important a thing to cultivate it is. Because music in so many ways translates the things we are unable to say — the pictures we are unable to paint — into a language that everyone can keep, and share, and understand. It defines your hometown into a four-minute song and makes sense of the geography as much as it does the demographics. While there can be something very isolating about having specific memories of a place you lived in that no one around you can fully understand, a song can be there to succinctly remind you that you aren’t imagining it. It really did happen. Because, at the end of the day, it’s not just about supporting your local music scene. It’s about remembering how much the music supports you.