Merce Ridgway Remembered as a Storied Bayman, Folk Musician

By MARIA SCANDALE | Jan 24, 2018

An authentic voice for the folklife of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens and the traditions of the Jersey Shore, Maurice “Merce” Inman Ridgway Jr. is part of a culture that has virtually disappeared. His death is lamented by Down The Shore Publishing, which in 2000 produced his illustrated hardcover book, The Bayman: A Life on Barnegat Bay.

He worked as a bayman – harvesting clams, oysters, crabs and fish from the vicinity of Barnegat Bay – and also found livelihood in the Pine Barrens.

His memoir was described by the Trenton Times as “a wonderful book about a vanishing world,” and by Wooden Boat as, “A fascinating, salty work about a nearly lost way of life.” The book won the New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance Book Award in 2001, for “an outstanding depiction of life along the Jersey Shore.”

The book, as its publisher said, “tells it like he lived it.”

“Few traditionalists have the sense of time and place to realize that their everyday actions are tomorrow’s history. Merce Ridgway stored the details of a bayman’s livelihood in his head and his heart until the time came to put truth to paper. The result is an insider’s chronicle of a culture that has all but disappeared from the Jersey Shore.”

Ridgway put it this way: “I have lived the life of a free man, and that is the greatest treasure that a person may acquire.”

Paradoxically, it was others whom he was talking about when he wrote in his song “Down Cross the Bays,” But great is the value/And great is the worth/Of the men of the waters/The salt of the earth.

Another of many philosophical thoughts, he previewed in his book, “I didn’t know it then but I was about to embark on journeys powered by a lot of different motors. Some I would love, some I would hate, and even the good ones wear out.”

But the stories will live on. Ridgway immerses the reader in a voice that only a good storyteller can. Readers are left asking, please tell us one more.

“Philosophical, without pretensions, this account is a Foxfire-like scrapbook of Pinelands lore as much as it is a diary of a bayman’s view,” said publisher Ray Fisk.

“As Merce leads us through the steps of building a garvey, the traditional Barnegat Bay work boat, he starts at the beginning – hearing the sound of a bear growling beyond the sawmill. As he describes the habits of the blue-claw crab, he speculates on how they communicate. His wife, Arlene, adds rural recipes from the bay and Pine Barrens and a genealogy that traces her husband’s roots to English nobility. Singling out one relation, Merce credits his great-grandfather, captain and first keeper of records of the Barnegat Life Saving Station, for the penchant to write it all down.”

The stories came in song, too. His music accompanied his life, and has since reached a nationwide level. Son of a musician who was celebrated by folklorist Dorthea Dix Lawrence, Ridgeway is well known in folk music circles as a songwriter and musician in his own right. In 1983, he represented New Jersey at the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C.

Rutgers University honored him for distinguished contributions to the traditional arts of New Jersey. He performed at the New Jersey State Folk Festival in New Brunswick in 1995. Ocean County designated Oct. 14, 1995, as “Merce Ridgway Day” to honor him for his work to preserve the region’s traditional cultural heritage. He received the Hurley Conklin Award from the Barnegat Bay Decoy and Baymen’s Museum in 1996, honoring those who have “lived their life in the Barnegat Bay tradition.”

He was founder of the Pinelands Cultural Society. When the impromptu music sessions came to an end at the Albert brothers’ cabin deep in the Pine Barrens, Ridgway began producing the “Sounds of the Jersey Pines” in 1974, and the weekly Saturday folk music stage that continues to this day at Albert Music Hall in Waretown. The family lived in Waretown for three decades.

Ridgway, who had retired to rural West Virginia but kept the music going, passed away Jan. 12.

He was born in 1941 in the tiny Pine Barrens hamlet of Bamber; his family roots stretch deep into the sugar sand of southern New Jersey. The family has the sea and pines in their blood going back to their arrival on local shores in 1679. This man named Merce perhaps found it no coincidence that the family hailed from the ancient kingdom called Mercia in England, and that his name is also contained in the scientific label for the hard clam, mercenaria mercenaria.

He had served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1959 to 1963 and  returned home as the region began to change dramatically. He was part of a vanguard in his deep concern about the declining environmental condition of the shore. His tales of politics, greed and over-harvesting sent out a strong warning that when the treasures of nature are taken for granted, they disappear.

Therefore, Ridgway became the first president of the Baymen’s Association for Environmental Protection as well as a member of the first executive board of the Commercial Fisherman’s Council and of the Coalition for Survival.

Merce Ridgway’s vast experience on the bay led to a close-up insight that is fascinating to readers. He shares in a chapter on crabs, “Crabs can communicate. It was well known among the baymen that if you went to work too early on the crabs, they would get up and walk away.”

Added Fisk, “The Bayman shares secrets that we could learn only from a lifetime of sitting on the docks, hoping to talk at the end of the day with these men whose experience runs deep. We learn by getting closer, by tracing the life of the scallop, by weathering a whipping northeaster, by understanding the fellow baymen’s unwritten ‘code of the bay.’”

The author’s foremost hope was that his words would go a step beyond documentation, to inspire others to save what is left of a fragile ecosystem.

In one chapter, readers of his book cheer as Ridgway tells the Shellfish Council what he knows and what he’s seen.

“I felt so disgusted by my experience with the way the state had allowed the oyster industry in Barnegat Bay to be handled that I never became involved in the government-run oyster projects in South Jersey,” he wrote.

Said Fisk, “The author laments not just the loss of an authentic American folk culture, but the loss of the environment and natural resources the culture survived on. His experiences divulge some reasons for that. When a living came from the bay one clam at a time, or from each pull of 16-foot oyster tongs, baymen knew the water intimately and recognized when outside forces were doing wrong. Today, preservationists and environmentalists struggle to raise awareness of the connection between bay, salt marsh, upland woods and Pine Barrens; in the author’s experience, that integration was a fact of life.”

The publisher summarized, “Merce lived an extraordinary life, holding close timeless values of the water and the land, honoring and respecting both. He had an ability to communicate all of that to others, sharing, without pretense, through his music, writing and conversations. The history and culture of the Barnegat Bay region are better for his contributions. We are grateful.”

Leslee Ganss, associate editor of Down The Shore Publishing, reflected after his death, “Bayman, musician and keeper of folklore, Merce Ridgway had only respect and reverence for the bounty he received from these waters. He was a wonderful soul, and I am sure he is somewhere sharing stories with the Great Spirit – and maybe playing some music.”

The Bayman: A Life on Barnegat Bay was recently released in a trade paper edition by Down The Shore Publishing.

mariascandale@thesandpaper.net

 

 

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