By Bill Sterling
Thelma Peterson shares her personal memories as well as her love of the history and nature of the Eastern Shore of Virginia in her new CD, “Of Salt and Sand.”
From “It Ain’t No Fun Painting the Bottom of a Boat,” to “Shoreland Pines,” Peterson has written, recorded and performed 18 songs that celebrate the rich heritage and people of the Eastern Shore.
And though she devoted countless hours to the project, from designing the CD cover and then sticking labels on by hand, to mixing and mastering each of the songs in her home studio, the proceeds go to two organizations close to her heart — the Barrier Islands Center (BIC) and Chesapeake Conservancy.
The CD can be be purchased for $15 at the BIC in Machipongo and the Lemon Tree Gallery in Cape Charles, or you can stream the music for free under Projects at her website, thelmapeterson.com, with a request for consideration of a donation to the BIC and/or Chesapeake Conservancy with the links provided for each organization.
Or, for animal lovers, as Peterson lives with two rescue dogs in her bayside home on Jacobus Creek, the CD is also for sale at the SPCA in Onley, and sales there will go to that organization.
A well-known painter, best known for her series of former Coast Guard stations on the barrier islands, and a musician who often performs throughout Delmarva with her daughter Erika, Peterson said producing this CD started as a project spurred by inactivity during the pandemic and finished as her personal therapy as she and two siblings spent three months by the bedside of their brother, dying from a rare form of cancer.
“I would talk to my brother about the songs on the CD and the memories we shared growing up on the water. Often, I would be placing labels on the CD cover as he slept in the same house we grew up in and where he lived his entire life,” said Peterson, whose brother, Cary Douglas Jarvis, died in November.
Peterson and her four siblings grew up in the Ocean View area of Norfolk. Their father and grandfather spent their free time fishing, clamming, oystering and gill-net fishing. Peterson set, hauled and mended those nets, preferring to be on the water to being in the kitchen, where her mother might be stirring chowder and frying crab cakes.
And, yes, she and her siblings each year had to paint the bottom of her dad’s fleet of homemade boats between tidal changes.
“There is a common thread to what I paint and sing about,” recently noted Peterson, who was the first board chairman and driving force behind the founding of the Barrier Islands Center. “I am sharing the stories of my life.”
But, here on Delmarva, she finds listeners who relate to her songs and art. “The first time I sang “It Ain’t No Fun Painting the Bottom of a Boat” was at the Chesapeake Bay Music Festival in Annapolis sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute. Only seven or so artists and bands were invited to perform, and when I finished, a waterman approached me almost in tears and said, ‘You just wrote a song about what I do for a living.’ ”
Other themes of songs on the CD include childhood memories of the Chesapeake Bay, working watermen, sailing on the bay, the barrier islands, and the storm of 1933.
Peterson explained one poignant song, “I Am at War,” is about the battles of nature against man, but was born from a ceremony she attended honoring her father among those who were in the first wave of infantrymen who stormed Omaha Beach at Normandy on D-Day.
“I had just returned from that ceremony and turned on the television to see images of wildlife being coated by the oil spilled in the Gulf. Feeling the emotions from both events, I wrote the song very quickly.”
‘I Am at War” later finished second among the popular vote in a national contest sponsored by USA Today for songs centered around the Gulf oil spill and earned the judges’ vote as the best song about the event.
Though she first came to the Shore as a young adult, Peterson found she has deep roots on the Eastern Shore. Her first known ancestor on her father’s side landed on Old Plantation Creek in Northampton County in 1635, and she can trace her mother’s family to Chincoteague and Assateague in the 1700s.
Although Erika is often on stage with her when Peterson performs, this CD is all Thelma as her daughter’s three young children and her position as a high school Spanish teacher made it impossible for Erika to participate. Peterson did pitch in to home school her 10-year-old and 7-year-old grandchildren when schools were closed during the pandemic.
Peterson added that the CD would not have been possible without her son Charles’ technical support. “He’s my go-to person when I need advice on production issues.”
Rev. Doug Tanner, who is also a musician and has befriended many Eastern Shore musical artists, had this to say about Peterson’s “Of Salt and Sand”:
“I’ve followed folk-style songs of life on the coast and especially the Chesapeake Bay for over 50 years. A talented musician with a modicum of creativity can come up with a catchy tune, but the best lyrics always flow from writers who really know what they’re writing about.
“No one can write songs about the Bay, the Shore, and the Barrier Islands like Thelma does without having lived the life in her lines. Those who’ve scraped and painted bottoms of wooden boats between tides, hung and mended cotton-twine gill nets, or rowed home with a sibling after setting them are hard to find in 2021; writers with musical gifts comparable to Thelma’s are rare indeed.
“A mutual friend who called Thelma ‘the Emmy Lou Harris of the Eastern Shore’ hit the nail on the head. In this new album of original songs about the Bay, the Shore, and the Barrier Islands, its own ‘Emmy Lou’ has given the Shore a trove of musical treasure to celebrate and to share.”