Sea Shanties Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Sea Shanties

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A pair of arms pulling a rope.

Imagine, if you will, a sailing ship of days past. In the heyday of these ships, before electricity and motors could do all the work, getting anywhere relied solely on the labour of the sailors on board. Anything as simple as adjusting a sail or raising the anchor required the presence of half the ship's crew on deck, walking around the capstan1 or hauling on halyards.

Though work songs have been sung since time immemorial, the shanty itself developed in the 19th Century, the golden days of the sailing ship. The word 'shanty' comes from the French word chanter, 'to sing', which is in turn derived from the Latin 'cantare'. Shanties were not allowed on ships of the British Royal Navy, as it was believed that they would adversely affect the crew's discipline. However, merchant ships had many shanties in use which the crew sung to make all kinds of work seem less arduous.

Format of the Shanty

Shanties are sung in a call-and-response fashion. A leader, or 'shantyman', sings out the verses, and the chorus or refrain is then echoed by the entire crew. The style is very rhythmic, and a word is usually emphasised in the refrain to indicate the point at which the crew should pull on the rope or do whatever needs to be done. Since there are a variety of specific shipboard tasks for which a shanty could be used, different styles of shanty have evolved, each with its own rhythm according to the necessity of the task.

Capstan Shanties

As the sailors walked around the capstan in order to raise or lower heavy sails or one of the ship's anchors, they would stamp their feet in time to a shanty sung out by the shantyman. Perhaps the most famous capstan shanty known to the general public is the 'Drunken Sailor':

What shall we do with the drunken sailor?
What shall we do with the drunken sailor?
What shall we do with the drunken sailor?
Early in the morning.

Hooray and up she rises
Hooray and up she rises
Hooray and up she rises
Early in the morning.

Halyard Shanties

A halyard is a strong rope used to haul on a yard, the wooden extension of the mast to which sails were fastened. In a halyard shanty, to be sung while hauling on such a halyard, the crew rests while the shantyman sings the verse, and then they all haul on the chorus. Depending on how difficult the job was, the rhythm of the chorus could allow for between one and three pulls. A halyard shanty that appears fairly familiar is 'Blow the Man Down'. Note the strong accents in the chorus, when hauling should be occurring:

Come all ye young fellows that follow the sea
Way hay, blow the man down
And pray pay attention and listen to me
Give me some time to blow the man down.

I'm a deep water sailor just in from Hong Kong
Way hay, blow the man down
If you'll give me some grog, I'll sing you a song
Give me some time to blow the man down.

Et cetera.

Short Haul Shanties

Very difficult and heavy jobs, such as adding extra bits, known as mastheads, onto the top of the masts, required special shanties that only allowed for one pull per refrain. Short haul2 shanties fill this requirement. 'Paddy Doyle's Boots', a short haul shanty, was specifically employed for furling the sails. It is short (and is listed here in its entirety) because this job was not a lengthy one:

Yes, aye, and we'll haul, aye
To pay Paddy Doyle for his boots
We'll tauten the bunt, and we'll furl, aye
And pay Paddy Doyle for his boots.

Yeo, aye, and we'll sing, aye
To pay Paddy Doyle for his boots
We'll bunt up the sail with a fling, aye
And pay Paddy Doyle for his boots!

Yeo, aye an we'll haul, aye
To pay Paddy Doyle for his boots
We'll skin the ol' rabbit an' haul, aye
To pay Paddy Doyle for his boots!

Pumping Shanties

Being objects essentially made out of wooden planks nailed together, the old sailing ships naturally leaked quite a bit. Pumps were located in the bilge — the very bottom section of a ship — to drain out the water that collected there. This was an arduous task that necessarily had its own shanty to accompany it, like 'Santy Ano':

From Boston Town we're bound away
Heave aweigh Santy Ano.
Around Cape Horn to Frisco Bay
We're bound for Californi-o.

So Heave her up and away we'll go
Heave aweigh Santy Ano.
Heave her up and away we'll go
We're bound for Californi-o.

She's a fast clipper ship and a bully crew
Heave aweigh Santy Ano.
A down-east Yankee for her captain, too
We're bound for Californi-o.

Ceremonial and Fo'c'sle Songs

While these would often take on the style of shanties (such as the verse-refrain format), they were not sung while working. A ceremonial song would be sung for a specific occasion: say, arriving in harbour, or crossing the equator; while a fo'c'sle song was just one sung for entertainment while in the crewmembers' quarters3. A typical example is 'Leave Her, Johnny', a song which mourns the time when the ship arrives in port and all the sailors must leave her. It is said that this song is referred to in the novel by Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before the Mast:

Oh the times are hard and the wages low
Leave her, Johnny, leave her
Oh the times are hard and the wages low
And it's time for us to leave her.

Oh my old mother she wrote to me
'My dear son, come home from sea.'

It was rotten meat and weevilly bread
'You'll eat or starve,' the Old Man said.

I thought I heard the Old Man say
'You can go ashore and collect your pay.'

It's time for us to say goodbye
For the old pierhead is drawing nigh.

Leave her, Johnny, leave her
Oh, leave her, Johnny, leave her
The voyage is done and the winds don't blow
And it's time for us to leave her.

Famous Shanty Singers

Though we'll never know the names of those shantymen of the merchant ships in days gone by, many musicians and singers have made their names more recently in the singing and performing of shanties.

Stan Hugill

Born in 1906 in Cheshire, UK, Stan Hugill was a sailor for most of his life, becoming an instructor at the Outward Bound Sea School in the 1960s. He became famous for being a member of the last crew of the UK's last merchant ship, Garthpool. He had much to say artistically about life at sea, creating over 250 maritime oil paintings and authoring five books about sea shanties and their history. His Shanties From the Seven Seas has become the shanty-singer's bible — incidentally, though, it was written rather by accident. When Hugill broke his leg and was thus confined to his home for a period of time, the boredom became too much, and so he decided to record all the shanties he had learned during his time at sea. He also performed these shanties. He has recorded numerous LPs - some of which have now been re-released on CD - in which he sings songs and tells stories about life at sea. He died in 1992 in Wales.

Ewan MacColl

Ewan MacColl, born in 1915 in Lancashire, UK, belonged to the tradition of protest singers that was flourishing on both sides of the Atlantic with names such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. MacColl worked in various factory jobs and acted in amateur theatre: his plays have actually become quite famous and were highly praised by George Bernard Shaw. It was in the 1950s that MacColl discovered traditional music. He became sufficiently interested that he managed to contribute significantly to the British folk song revival. He began to perform duets with his partner, Peggy Seeger4, and in addition to an interest in songs of Jacobite and industrial themes, and in the Child Ballads5, MacColl gained an interest in sea shanties - some of his more famous recordings of them include 'Van Diemen's Land' and 'Farewell to Sicily'. MacColl later combined his interests in drama and traditional music, presenting a series of folk music documentaries for BBC radio, before a series of heart attacks finally brought about his death in 1989.

Stan Rogers

A Canadian singer-songwriter, Stan Rogers was born in Ontario in 1949. Though most of his songs were original ones, they also served to capture the maritime spirit of his childhood home, Canso, Nova Scotia. Songs like 'Mary Ellen Carter' and 'Northwest Passage' could just as well be forecastle songs, for they carry a very similar feeling. Rogers' song 'Barrett's Privateers' was actually written as a shanty: while at a folk music festival, Rogers was bored by the same old shanties the other musicians were singing, so he decided to write one of his own. Some of Rogers' arrangements of traditional shanties, like 'Rolling Down to Old Maui' and 'The Maid on the Shore', have become the accepted version in folk music circles, and have later been recorded by less well-known artists like Massachusetts native David Coffin. Rogers died suddenly in 1983 in a fire on a plane landing in Ohio. His death was mourned by fans worldwide.


The non-profit organisation Revels, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, performs traditional music at seasonal concerts. Their spring and summer concerts often include sea music, especially that which has influenced Boston's heritage. Featured soloists such as John Langstaff and David Coffin lead the volunteer chorus and the audience in well-known shanties. Revels has also released several albums of sea music.

Great Big Sea

This band, of Newfoundland origin, has been active since 1993. What the four original members started as a post-university project became an interesting phenomenon that performs traditional sea music and original music influenced by the genre, though with a pop twist. Members include Alan Doyle (vocals and guitar), Bob Hallett (vocals, fiddle, mandolin, bouzouki, whistles, Irish flutes, accordions) and Sean McCann (vocals, guitars, bodhran, tin whistle). They have released eight albums since they began performing together and currently tour around the United States and Canada. Their style of music has been especially successful in bringing sea shanties and other sea music to a more widespread audience.

While it doesn't quite count as a shanty singer, it should be noted that on the last night of the BBC Proms concerts, a 'Fantasy on British Sea Songs' by Henry Wood is often played. It is accompanied by its own traditions, such as making silly noises during the 'Sailor's Hornpipe.'

The sailing ships may have ceased to sail the seven seas6, but the music that their crews created out of necessity still lives on today. Every year, in many countries worldwide, sea shanty festivals take place in which people come to rejoice in the music their forefathers sang to make the work move faster.

Related Links

1A large, mushroom-shaped object that acts as a giant pulley to move heavy things, such as anchors or large sails. Men would walk around the capstan, pushing on it and causing it to rotate, which would in turn pull on ropes attached to it which would accomplish the necessary task.2Sometimes referred to as 'short drag'.3The crew's quarters was located in the fo'c'sle, an abbreviation for 'forecastle' — the foremost part of the ship.4Sister of the above mentioned Pete Seeger.5A collection of traditional music compiled in the 19th Century by James Francis Child.6Unless you're one of the enthusiasts that takes part in the tall ships races that take place around the world. These involve the huge sailing ships of years past sailing all around the coasts of various continents.

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