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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 ships.

     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, and European.


     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.

     Shanties 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 version here).

     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 history.

Click here to return to this month's (March, 2001) feature.

March, 2001




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