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The History Sea Shanties

This page will attempt to answer a few of the basic questions that surrounds the music myth and mystery of the sailors of old. Some questions I look to answer are, What are sea shanties? How did they get their name? What are some of the earliest well documented songs? And perhaps attempt to answer the query, are there different types of shanties?

Music has played a central part in life at sea providing not only entertainment and contributing to the health and morale of seamen but also providing rhythm and cohesion to the everyday tasks of sailors and fishermen.[1] Sea shanties were (I speak of them in past tense although they are still sung to this day) rhythmic songs that helped the sailors “keep the time” during work tasks. Pulling line to raise or trim sails, weighing anchor, or the ever-monotonous work on the bilge pumps were all made less mundane by a cheerful song. Apart from working songs, there were also ballads. These ballads often described the hard life on board the tall ships. They spoke of the good or bad properties of a ship or about the emotional links sailors had with the shore and those left behind. [2] Not all sailors were permitted to sing songs. In Nelson’s Navy for example, songs were banned and replaced with calling out a cadence of numbers or the rhythmic playing of a fiddle or fife. [3]

There is some historical confusion about where the term sea shanties derived. Some historians suggest that songs were named from the French word “chanter” which means to sing. Others argue that the songs name degenerated from the English word "chant".[4] The English word chant means to make melodic sounds with the voice; especially: to sing a chant or to recite in a monotonous repetitive tone. Looking at the Etymology of the word: Middle English chaunten, from Middle French chanter, from Latin cantare, frequentative of canere to sing; akin to Old English hana rooster, Old Irish canid he sings intransitive senses, [5]one might suggest that its origin is Irish or Latin!

The earliest well recorded pieces of sea shanty music are a collection of contemporary songs composed by Queen Elizabeth I to celebrate the defeat of the Spanish Armada, 1588. Charles Dibden (1745–1814), the actor, dramatist and songwriter is well represented in the collection. There are drafts of the words of three of his songs, 'Every Man His Own Pilot' (1801), 'The Standing Toast' (1811) and 'The Danes' (1807). There is also a manuscript copy by Dibdin of the words (first verse only) and music of 'Poor Jack' (1788) and an anecdote in his own hand regarding the words of 'Jack and the Windlass' (1791). Among the fourteen printed songs, the majority of which are autographed, are 'The Sailor's Return' (1791), 'Tack and Half Tack' (1795) and 'The Watery Grave' (1790). There are three songs by John Braham (1774?–1856) with words by Thomas Dibdin - 'The Heart of the Sailor' (1802), 'Love and Glory' and 'All's Well' (1805). [6]

There are two main kinds of shanties. The first kind is the work shanties that are divided into short drag (short haul), long drag (halyard), windlass, and capstan songs. The second are the forecastle or fo'c'sle shanties. These are often ballads or tell of some historical event, and take their name from the part of the ship where the singing usually took place on the forecastle.

Short Drag Shanty
Short drag or short haul shanties were for tasks that required quick pulls over a relatively short period of time, such as for work like shortening or unfurling sails.

Long Drag Shanty
Long drag or halyard shanties were for work that required more time between pulls. They were sung when for heavy labour that went on for a long time. Perhaps work like raising or lowering a heavy sail. This type of shanty gave the sailors a rest in between the hauls. This type of shanty usually has a chorus at the end of each line.

Capstan Shanty
Capstan (or windlass) shanties were used for long or repetitive tasks that needed a sustained rhythm. Raising or lowering the anchor by winding up the heavy anchor chain was their prime use. These are the most developed of the work shanties.

Forecastle Shanties
These songs came were about places visited, reminding the sailors of home or foreign lands. Sailors enjoyed singing songs of love, adventure, pathos, famous men, and battles.

Whaling Shanties
Life on a whaler was more dangerous than on any other ship. The length of time at sea was also typically lasted from two to three years. It is no wonder that whalers had their own array of sea shanties. Songs helped give these men the will to go on in the face of their dreadful circumstances.[7]

Music played a very important role in the lives of sailors. It kept them up when they needed to be motivated and helped them relax after a hard days work. Even today, the sea, the ships, and those that sail, still find their way into the lyrics of singer songwriters. Just as music shall be immortalize the sea and its sailors, so too shall the sea and its sailors commemorate its music.


[1] National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Copyright © National Maritime Museum, 2001.
[2] International Shanty and Seasong Association.  Copyright © 1998 / 2005 - ISSA
[3] National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Copyright © National Maritime Museum, 2001.
[4] International Shanty and Seasong Association.  Copyright © 1998 / 2005 - ISSA
[5] Merriam-Webster Online
[6]  National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Copyright © National Maritime Museum, 2001.
[7] International Shanty and Seasong Association.  Copyright © 1998 / 2005 - ISSA

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