In Search of Sea Shanties, Work Songs of The Sea
This month's edition (March,
2001) gave us a sampling of some American as well as European popular songs
about the sea, boats and ships. Those songs represent popular composer's imagination
and visions of the sea and its attraction. In our continuing search for the
origins of American popular music, a look at the original songs of the sea will
give us some insight into one category of traditional or folk song that has
had a significant effect on popular music; the work song and more specifically
for this month, the sea shanty. Work songs were/are folk songs sung by laborers,
usually to accompany the work they are performing. I think we can all relate
to the idea of "whistle while you work". The work song is the vocal
equivalent and the documented work song tradition goes back at least to the
18th century and probably well beyond.
Work songs were (still are) sung to help workers do the job better. Singing
tends to pace the work and diverts the mind from either oppressive or tedious
work and even uplifts the spirit in otherwise bad conditions. Records indicate
a wide variety of environments where work songs have accompanied tasks. They
are found in agriculture, industrial, the slave trade, prison work, railroad
activity, and of course, the sea and sailing. In the USA, there are a number
of areas where work songs emerged, especially during the 19th century. It has
been said that cowboys of the American West sang to their cattle to calm them
during roundup or along the trail to soothe them. For generations, soldiers
have sung marching songs to help maintain the proper cadence and to improve
morale. From the Afro-American experience, a wide range of work songs emerged
including; ax songs, riverboat songs, tie-clamping chants, shoeshine patters.
In addition, we have documented the chants of tobacco auctioneers, street peddlers,
railroad conductors and street peddlers as additional work song subject areas.
Of all the categories of work songs, perhaps none are as well known and colorful
as the sea shanty. The English language sea shanty flourished from around 1810
to the end of the 19th century. Despite the primary period of popularity, shanties
continued to be used well into the 20th century and there are documented examples
of shanties from as early as the 15th century. The rise of the sea shanty coincided
with the end of the War of 1812 with the reinvigoration of the British and growth
of the American merchant marine services. The rapid expansion of the American
merchant marine presented a challenge to the previously dominant British trade.
Prior to then, the lack of competition resulted in a rather leisurely pace of
operation. During those years (pre 1815), singing was even prohibited on British
The most prolific period for the creation of sea shanties was the period from
1820 to around 1860. As steam vessels came into use and replaced sailing ships,
the use of shanties declined. Since most shanties were genuine work songs tied
to an activity aboard ship such as reefing sails, hauling lines, using a pump
or capstan, the need for the songs simply faded away. Sea shanties were mentioned
by seafaring authors in books during the 19th century and early 20th century.
From those references we at least know a little about the origins of certain
shanties. The most prominent author to make specific mention of songs by title
was Charles Nordhoff, author of Mutiny on The Bounty and Richard Henry
Dana (1815-1882), author of a number of sea related works including the famous
Two Years Before The Mast. That book is based on the diary Dana
kept while at sea. First published in 1841, it is one of America's most famous
accounts of life at sea. It contains a rare and detailed account of life on
the California coast a decade before the Gold Rush revolutionized the region's
culture and society. Dana chronicles stops at the ports of Monterey, San Pedro,
San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Santa Clara. He describes the lives of sailors
in the ports and their work of hide-curing on the beaches, and he gives close
attention to the daily life of the peoples of California: Hispanic, Native American,
By now, I know you must be wanting to listen to and see a real sea shanty from
the early 1800's. Let's listen to A wonderful "halyard" shanty from
about 1815, Blow,
Boys, Blow. Click on the title to see and hear the scorch version. Click
here for the midi version.
Unfortunately, I have no cover images for these as they are mostly only available
through history books, compilations or on the net. The origins of the term,
"shanty" (also "chanty") is not accurately known, but many
reasonable hypotheses have been offered by scholars. The term may be derived
from the French, "chantez", to sing, the English word, "chant"
or even from lumberman's songs many of which begin with the line, "Come
all ye brave shanty-boys." Getting even more remote, some say that the
term could have come from the Caribbean shanty huts which were often moved on
rollers while a man on the roof sang to the haulers.
The origins of the melodies and lyrics are also subject to varied ancestry.
It is said that many are based on the hauling cries of Elizabethan seamen. Others
are based on Anglo-Irish folk ballads, West Indian folk songs, Civil war marching
songs, Afrikaans war songs, poems, popular songs (Sacramento, based on Stephen
Foster's Camptown Races) and riverboat songs. Sea shanties are classified according
to the type of work that they accompanied. The types include: hauling songs
which include halyard, short haul and hand over hand shanties, heaving songs
that include capstan, pumping and anchor raising. Which category a shanty belongs
to is often disputed. The tempo of each song can vary greatly and the text alone
does not always determine type although in some cases it provides strong likelihood.
Take for example, the shanty Fire
Down Below, this work is most probably a pumping songs. Enjoy listening
to the scorch version and read the lyrics too. If you don't have access to scorch,
click here for the MIDI.
were lead by a shantyman. A good one had a large repertoire and was skilled
at bringing out the best from the sailors. He was often sensitive to mood and
could change mood simply by choice of a good shanty at the right time. He usually
had a loud voice that was capable of being heard above the noise of the work,
waves, wind, birds and the general clatter of ship sounds. Tenors usually carried
better and a full chesty sound that limited vocal decoration or subtlety was
required. The shanty man would sing the lead in and the crew would follow with
the refrains. Rarely was harmony used. In the early days, shanties were often
accompanied by fiddle or accordion. We have scored our examples for concertina
and recorder for at least an approximation of authenticity.
For your enjoyment, here are two more wonderful shanties:
The first, another halyard shanty, A
Hundred Years Ago (score version), (MIDI
The second a wonderfully humorous shanty that may have been a pumping song
but is most surely based on real life shore experiences of some sailors, be
sure to have your scorch player installed to enjoy the lyrics of The
Saucy Sailor Boy, they are priceless. If you cannot use scorch, enjoy
the MIDI version here.
Some sea shanties came down to us and are still popular such as the famous
What Do You Do With A Drunken Sailor. Yet others became the basis for popular
songs. You may have noticed that in construction, sea shanties are popular songs
in their simplest form; a single melody,
repeated over and over with different words (strophic form). Out of necessity,
the songs melodies were short and simple so that the songs could be easily learned
and did not require a great deal of training. By comparison, if we look at many
of the popular songs written during the same period we see more complexity and
a requirement for more musicality on the part of the performers. Take for example,
this song from 1890, We Were Shipmates, Jack and I. (click cover for full score,
scorch version, click here for MIDI).
In many respects, the lyrics of this work are very similar to a sea shanty.
The melody is somewhat simple, yet imagine a crew trying to haul in a bowline
trying to sing this song. Something would have to give, either the bowline or
the song. Yes, it would be the song.
That concludes our look at sea shanties, we hope you found it interesting.
A major source for this article was the New Grove Dictionary of American Music
as well as other sources. See our resources
page for a complete listing of the resources we have used to research our
various issues. An important on-line resource we used was the fabulous archive
of sea shanties found at Lesley Nelson's great Seafaring pages found at http://www.contemplator.com/sea/
. If you are interested in hearing more shanties and reading a bit about individual
shanty provenance, be sure to visit his site. Yet another site, with a very
comprehensive listing of Shanties from around the world is http://www.acronet.net/~robokopp/shanty.php
there are hundreds of titles listed and many have melody samples and the lyrics.
Between them, these two sites represent a tremendous resource for sea shanty
Click here to return to this
month's (March, 2001) feature.