Harbortown began in my mind as a way to describe the beautiful island I grew up on at the south end of magnificent New York Harbor. A place where the shipping news was always on the front page of the local paper along with the tide tables. A place of towns and villages in New York City defined by a rural sensibility and blissful isolation in the heart of the busiest port in the world; where cows and corn still grew fat and contented and there was always somebody with a boat itching to get out on the water. It was still a place where you had to know how to swim.
Most of that is gone but that Staten Island did exist and I caught the tail end of that reality.
Now I know that change is inevitable and good, and I embrace it, but there was a lot of history and stories about our fair isle that weren’t being told and what I kept hearing about Staten Island was mostly negative and derogatory. I decided to help reclaim our reputation, set some things straight, and keep those stories alive. So I started writing songs of local celebration, got awarded a grant, and put out a CD entitled Harbotown. From that the band, Harbortown, grew and has flourished. Many folks have come through the ranks since then and we have quite a crew aboard now; musicians who have played the songs together now for many years and sing them loudly and proudly. I am so proud of them. They do not waver it their commitment to the harbor, its people, the Island, and to the songs.
They inspire me.
Bob Conroy is the linchpin in the group, a well-seasoned, well-traveled folk singer with an international reputation and a banjo about as long as I am tall. We met at that first grant award ceremony and have collaborated on many projects, both here and overseas, together ever since. He is a mighty fine songwriter,multi-instrumentalist, and singer. And he knows the good craic.
Jan Christensen is well known as a folk singer/ shantyman/ songwriter who, like me, spent many a day working on the water both in the US Navy and sailing sailboats. He even got to work on one of the most famous, Pete Seeger’s Clearwater, and sang often with the Man himself. Bob could not wait to introduce us and we have been singing together ever since.
Bill Doerge grew up on Staten Island and started playing music as a kid. He plays double bass, accordion, keyboards, guitar, etc. He is a handy man to have around. A mutual friend, Joe Scro, thought we should meet and, just like with Jan, we hit it off and went off running down the musical road together.
Bob Wright Bio
A native of Staten Island, New York Bob has been playing music since childhood. He is a multi-instrumentalist steeped in the American musical roots traditions often referred to as Americana. A long time member of the Risky Business Bluegrass Band and his own group, Harbortown, Bob often branches out to perform solo or in diverse, acoustic, musical settings following a restless creative urge.
He has been an awardee in all of the grant categories for the Council on the Arts and Humanities for Staten Island (COAHSI). These grants are underwritten by both New York City and New York State. He has been awarded a Premier grant, several Encore grants, a Junefest performance, and an Original Works grants in 2004 to write and produce a CD of songs about Staten Island. The resulting CD Harbortown is still available and has garnished excellent reviews. Several of those songs have become favorites with singers in the UK and Ireland. The group ‘Harbortown’ was formed in direct response to the collaborative efforts that went into producing the CD.
In 2003 Bob was a finalist in the bluegrass songwriting category of the prestigious Chris Austin Songwriting Competition at the Merlefest festival in North Carolina, finishing 3rd out of an international field of close to 900 entries and was invited to perform his song at the festival. He also ran a mentoring program at several of the Maryland Banjo Academy events run by The Banjo Newsletter based out of Annapolis, Maryland. In 2005 he was invited to Nashville as a member of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) Bluegrass Leadership Class of 2005. In September of 2009, the Brooklyn Arts Council invited him to perform his song The Dust Came Down at a 9/11 Memorial and the Arts Council archived the song for posterity. All of Bob's CD's are currently in the collection of the Staten Island Museum and are available for research and display.
As a result of a successful engagement at the Everyman Folk Club in Liverpool, UK, Hughie Jones, a legendary member of the British folk group ‘The Spinners’ published Bob’s song, ‘The Daughter of Water Street’ and recorded it on his CD Liverpool Connexions and has done several tours with the Spinners including a stint at the Liverpool Philharmonic in 2019.
Bob continues to perform, both here and abroad, and to write new material that explores the places he knows best. He released his 3rd CD, The Diver, at the beginning of 2008 and completed a project about immigration for which he was awarded a 2008 COAHSI Encore grant. In 2009 he received a COAHSI grant to write and perform songs about the cultural impact of oysters on NYC and first performed that song cycle at the Staten Island Museum. His project, The Oyster Aristocracy, was recorded as a result and was released at that show on 10/22/09.
Three of Bob's songs feature heavily in a new award winning documentary on oysters entitled Shellshocked, which premiered at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival in 2012. The songs are: The Oyster Aristocracy; Down by the Oyster Barges; Look at the Water. They were recently used in another documentary about oystering on the Chesapeake Bay by Louise Schiavone.
In 2012 Bob was awarded a Summerfest grant by COAHSI and performed at Tappan Park to kick off the series. Also in 2012, he received a JP Morgan Chase Regrant to research and produce a program entitled Sailing to Staten Island that debuted in October of the year and was a tremendous success. In April, 2012, the Banjo Newsletter published his interview with arguably the most famous banjo player in the world… Kermit T. Frog…
In 2013, after over a years worth of research and work, he was instrumental in having a plaque placed by the front door of the Noble Maritime Collection commemorating the work of noted maritime song collector William Main Doerflinger. Many of the songs were collected, in that very building, from the retired sailors of the former Sailors Snug Harbor and many of them were sung at a dedication concert that featured both Frank Woerner and Hughie Jones, amongst others.
His CD, Hamburger Sandwich, was on the American Folk Charts for the month of August, 2014.
In 2016 Bob was invited to perform at the New Jersey Folk Festival as part of its Singer-Songwriter showcase, and was made a Folk Fellow for the Working Waterfront Project initiated by SI Arts and funded by New York State.
Bob is a proud member of the North American Traveling Musicians Union, Local 1000, and can usually be found the third Sunday of every month at the Shanty session in the Noble Maritime Collection on the grounds of Snug Harbor and the first Sunday of the month at the Irish Sesiun sponsored by SI Arts.