Sea Shanties- Historic value and significance

- Advertisement -

Sea Shanties are shipboard work songs. These songs boosted the health and morale of the ship crew as they went about their strenuous tasks aboard the ship. Singing a sea shanty helped the sailors during long voyages. Additionally, the songs helped in making the hard work aboard the ship less monotonous and mundane. Sea shanties were also a source of amusement and entertainment for the sailors.

Let us take a look at Sea Shanties- Historic Value and Significance

1) Sea shanties thrived from the fifteenth century. Though most surviving ones are from the 18th and 19th century.

A picture of an old sailing ship
An old sailing ship

2) They served a practical purpose

During the olden days, the human muscle was the only source of power aboard a ship, hence a sea shanty’s rhythm helped in synchronizing the movements of the ship crew as they did repetitive tasks. The songs also helped in alleviating boredom and shortened the burden of hard work. They were especially helpful during long voyages.

A picture of a ship crew

3) The origin of the word

Historians often debate about the origin of the word. Some say that the word shanty is derived from the French word ‘chanter’ which means ‘to sing’. For some others, it comes from the English word ‘chant’, while some others argue that the word is of Irish or Latin origin.

4) Call and response sea shanties

Most of the shanties are sung as “call and response songs”, with one voice (shantyman) singing out a lyric from the song while the rest of the crew bellow the response. For example, the shanty called ‘Boney was a warrior’, which went like:

Shantyman: Boney was a warrior

Ship crew: Away, a- yah!

Shantyman: A warrior and a terrier

Ship crew: Jean Francois!

5) The earliest recorded sea shanties are a collection of contemporary songs composed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I to celebrate the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

A picture of the Spanish Armada and the English Ships
The Spanish Armada and the English Ships

6) Most sea shanties have a British or American origin.

7) The use of sea shanties came to end towards the mid 19th century. This was due to the introduction of streamlined vessels which reduced the time and effort taken by sailors to do routine tasks.

A picture of a streamlined ferry
A streamlined ferry

8) Sea shanties were often divided into categories and were sung based on the task at hand, although it wasn’t a hard and fast rule and the crew could sing a shanty of their choice during any given task.

9) The Short Drag Shanty

The short drag shanty was also known as the short-haul shanty. These were sung for tasks which required quick pulls over a relatively short period such as unfurling the sails. These shanties were especially sung during rough weather, it ensured that the ship crew did its job efficiently and safely. A well-known example is ‘Paddy Doyle’s Boots’.

A picture of the crew unfurling sails as a shanty man sings sea shanties

10) The Long Drag Shanty

This category of the shanty is also known as the halyard shanty. It was sung for the work which needed more setup time between pulls. It was essentially used for heavy labour which went on for a long time, for example lowering or raising a heavy sail. The shanty provided the sailors with a rest between the hauls and a chance to coordinate better with each other. The long drag shanty usually has a chorus at the end. A well-known example of this shanty is ‘blow, boys, blow’.

11) Capstan Shanty

The Capstan shanty was used for repetitive and long tasks that simply needed a sustained rhythm. They were musical in nature and often the longest. It was sung when raising or lowering the anchor when the ship crew was winding up the heavy anchor chain, which was a long and continuous effort.

The ‘Shenandoah’ is a well-known American sea shanty, which was sung by sailors as they battled to pulled the anchor from the depths of the ocean floor at the Capstan bars.

The Capstan Shanty typically follows a two-bar and a two phrase call and response form with the addition of the grand chorus.

A picture of a shantyman standing on the capstan singing sea shanties
The shantyman standing on the capstan

12) Pumping shanties

Wooden ships always had a leak somewhere. To hold the leak they had a special cargo area called the bilge. One had to pump out the water frequently. On a period ship, this task was done with a two-man pump. Most pumping shanties were also used as a Capstan shanty and vice versa. They often shared the same musical form as well and the tempo was changed according to the difficulty of the task.

However, while the tempo of the capstan shanty gradually slowed down as the work became more strenuous, the pumping shanties would often slow down at certain points throughout the song. These points in the song would sync with a specific action or with the rotation of the pump. If the song were to extend then it would return back to its original tempo.

A traditional pumping shanty is ‘Leave Her, Johnny, Leave Her’ and it was a custom to sing it as the closing shanty at the end of a journey.

13) Forebitters Shanty

These shanties were not work-shanties. They were sung for entertainment purposes after the work was done. The ship crew would sing these shanties when they were involved in solo-deck duty, like emergency lookouts. In the navy, such shanties were called as ‘Forebitters’ as they were sung around the bitts near the foremast. They were also called as ‘come-all-ye’s’ because many of these shanties began with the words “come all ye sailormen”.

They were also referred to as the ‘Forecastle shanties’ as they were sung in the sailor’s living quarters. These sea shanties came from places the crew visited and reminded the sailors of home or of the foreign lands they visited.

A picture depicting forebitters sea shanty

14) The Stamp-n-Go Shanties

These shanties were sung on ships with large crews. The sailors would sing this shanty as they took hold of a line ‘tug of war’ style’ and marched along the deck, stamping in the rhythm of the shanty. An example of the stamp-n-go shanty is the ‘drunken sailor’.

A picture of sailors hauling a line
Sailors hauling a line

15) Whaling Shanties

Whalers had a tough job and their task was risky. At any given moment their ship could be tipped over by a whale. They sang Whaling sea shanties to the rhythm of chasing whales, scrubbing decks, cleaning the whale and hauling ropes. These sea shanties helped in boosting their morale and ensured that their work was done efficiently.

A picture of whalers capturing a whale
Whalers capturing a whale (c: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

16) Musical instruments such as the fiddle and fife were used as well. The fiddler and the fifer would play during specific tasks such as raising the anchor or simply for amusement purposes.

A fiddler playing the fiddle and singing sea shanties as the sailors wind the anchor

17) The Shantyman

The shantyman was one of the most essential workers of the 19th-century merchant ships. He needed to have a powerful and strong voice which could rouse the sailors to work, and an ability to maintain a steady beat, improvise the lyrics and memorise the tune.

In many instances, the shantyman had an official paid position. Before the work began, the shantyman would sing the chorus of the song to let the crew know which shanty was to be sung. Once the song began, the shantyman would add additional vocal inflections (hitches) to the song to intensify the drive of the crew at specific points. These hitches motivated the crew for the next heavy strain.

Enjoyed the above article? You may also enjoy Ten Explorers Of The Seas That You Should Explore


Leave your vote

153 Points
Upvote Downvote
- Advertisement -

Must Read

Related Articles

Want to stay connected?

Your daily dose of History. One fact at a time!

Add to Collection

No Collections

Here you'll find all collections you've created before.