Rosanne Cash: Helping Keep a Great Ship Afloat

Over the last three decades, singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash has recorded a dozen albums and had eleven Number 1 singles. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, she is the eldest child of Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian Liberto, and currently lives in New York. She also is the voice of Discover America’s first-ever global tourism campaign, releasing a song and video – “Land of Dreams” – in which she is surrounded by an array of musicians strumming and singing below the Brooklyn Bridge.

And now, her ties to New York – and specifically Lower Manhattan – and philanthropic nature are even more evident. She is performing a gala concert to raise funds to restore the 120-year-old schooner Lettie G. Howard, which is docked at the South Street Seaport.

The gala, run by the South Street Seaport Museum and its uptown operator, the Museum of the City of New York, is being held on Monday, April 8th at the New York Academy of Medicine on Fifth Avenue. Tickets start at $50, and those who contribute $500 “Jib” level or above are invited to a post-performance private reception with Ms. Cash.  To purchase tickets, click here.

In recent years, the vessel has served as a sailing school vessel for the New York Harbor School, the New York City public high school on Governors Island that trains students for maritime careers. Repairs to make her seaworthy again are estimated at $250,000; $140,000 has been raised to date.

What prompted Ms. Cash to become involved is her ancestry. Ms. Cash’s ancestors arrived in Salem, Massachusetts aboard the ship Good Intent in 1643, and many of her ancestors were whalers and fishermen.

The Downtown Alliance caught up with Ms. Cash to ask about the upcoming performance.

Why are you holding a fundraising performance on April 8th for the South Street Seaport Museum?

It started with my friendship with Captain John Doswell. He took me and my family out on the John J. Harvey fireboat several years ago and we became friendly. After that, I went on a couple of sails on the Pioneer around the harbor and grew more and more interested in New York’s maritime history and the beauty of the harbor, and the steadfast work of the folks at the Seaport Museum.

What do you hope people take away from your special performance and its mission?

To realize that New York City is a maritime city, and that the history of its waterways, the ships that traverse them, and the life of the seaport are the reason the city even exists, and is the reason it grew into such a mighty power. Those things are still relevant today and honoring the history is just as important.

Why is it important for the Lettie F. Howard to be restored?

It’s one of NYC’s most important vessels. It’s beautiful, historically important, and it has a unique role in that it is a teaching vessel. There aren’t many of those.

Tell me about your ancestral connections to the maritime industry.

My Cash ancestors came from Scotland in the mid-1600’s, and landed in Salem, Mass. The original Cash in America is still referred to in historic accounts as ‘William the Mariner’.

William Cash ferried emigrants to America for many years before he decided to put down roots here himself. Some of his descendants went South and became farmers, but some stayed in the Northeast and sailed the seas. One of my ancestors, another William Cash, was a whaling captain from Nantucket. The giant jawbone of a whale that rests in the Nantucket Museum was brought back by Captain Cash.

Of great interest to me also is the fact that Captain Cash’s wife Azubah’s diaries are in the Nantucket Library. She went on a couple of long voyages with Captain Cash, as she hated being left behind when he was on a whaling trip. On one trip, he dropped her in Hawaii to give birth, and picked her up four months later.

One other thing: In 1839, Captain Cash shipwrecked on one of his early voyages off the coast of Long Island, on a ship called the Edward Quesnel.  I’ve been to the spot where the ship foundered many times. It’s an eerie kind of time travel.

The Museum of the City of New York was put in charge of reinvigorating the Seaport Museum after years of dwindling vistorship and revenue. How would you describe the Seaport Museum’s role in New York City’s history?

I think the Seaport is essential to remind us of our origins as New Yorkers, and to honor the importance and beauty of our maritime history.  But they are not only concerned with the past, they are vitally connected to the present– to New York artists and artisans, and to the evolving role of the Seaport in the city.

You are a New Yorker, and are part of the country’s first tourism campaign overseas, singing “Land of Dreams” – and with the Brooklyn Bridge in Lower Manhattan as a backdrop. Why do you feel visitors should know about the Seaport and its attraction?

The Seaport is where New York City was born. It seems to me that visitors should know about the early days of the city. To visit the city around the Seaport is to touch the past, with the excitement of the future right at hand.