Sea shanty

Sea shanty
Sailors sang shanties while performing shipboard labor

A shanty (also spelled "chantey", "chanty") is a type of work song that was once commonly sung to accompany labor on board large merchant sailing vessels. Shanties became ubiquitous in the 19th century era of the wind-driven packet and clipper ships. However, the switch to steam-powered ships and the use of machines for shipboard tasks, by the end of the 19th century, meant that these work songs eventually ceased to fill a practical function. In most trades, shanties ceased to be used as work songs by first half of the 20th century. Information about shanties was preserved by veteran sailors and folklorist song-collectors, and their written and audio-recorded work provided sources that would later support a revival in singing shanties as a land-based leisure activity. "Shanty" most accurately refers to a specific style of work song belonging to an historical repertoire, however in recent, popular usage, its meaning is sometimes expanded to include a wider range of repertoire and characteristics.


Etymology and spelling

The origin of the word "shanty" is unknown. While several theories have been put forth, perhaps the earliest and most consistently agreed on derivation is from the French chanter, 'to sing.'[1]

First sightings

The phenomenon of using songs or chants in some form to accompany sea labor long preceded the emergence of the word "shanty." The first documented use of the word comes in G.E. Clark's Seven Year's of a Sailor's Life, published in 1867. Narrating a voyage in a clipper ship from Bombay to New York in the early 1860s, Clark writes:

The anchor came to the bow with the chanty of “Oh, Riley, Oh,” and “Carry me Long,” and the tug walked us toward the wharf at Brooklyn.[2]

Telling of another voyage out of Provincetown, Mass., in the mid-1860s:

Every man sprang to duty. The cheerful chanty was roared out, and heard above the howl of the gale. The cable held very hard, and when it surged over, the windlass sent the men flying about the deck, as if a galvanic battery had been applied to their hands. The vessel's head was often buried in the solid seas, and the men, soaked and sweating, yelled out hoarsely, “Paddy on the Railway,” and “We're Homeward Bound,” while they tugged at the brakes, and wound the long, hard cable in, inch by inch.[3]

Clark refers to a lead singer as a "chanty man." He also refers to stevedores unloading cargo as "chanty men" and a "chanty gang."

This reference to singing stevedores as "chanty men" connects the genre to a still earlier reference to "chanty-man" as the foreman of a work gang and the lead singer of their songs. Around the late 1840s, Charles Nordhoff observed work gangs engaged in a type of labor called "cotton-screwing," in Mobile Bay. Supposed to be one of the heaviest sorts of labor, cotton-scewing involved the use of large jack-screws to compress and force cotton bales into the holds of outbound ships. Work gangs consisted of four men who timed their exertions in turning the jack-screw to songs called "chants."

Singing, or chanting as it is called, is an invariable accompaniment to working in cotton, and many of the screw-gangs have an endless collection of songs, rough and uncouth, both in words and melody, but answering well the purposes of making all pull together, and enlivening the heavy toil. The foreman is the chanty-man, who sings the song, the gang only joining in the chorus, which comes in at the end of every line, and at the end of which again comes the pull at the screw handles...
The chants, as may be supposed, have more of rhyme than reason in them. The tunes are generally plaintive and monotonous, as are most of the capstan tunes of sailors, but resounding over the still waters of the Bay, they had a fine effect.[4]

Towards standardization

The spelling of the term has never been standardized, and it appeared quite inconsistently until after the 1920s. While the above, American sources use a "ch" spelling, the next appearances of the term, coming in two very similar articles from British publications from 1868 and 1869, use "shanty."[5][6] Most of the early writers to give substantial due to the genre (i.e. who were not mentioning shanties only in passing) used the "ch" spelling, regardless of their nationality. Examples include:

1887, London: Sailor Songs or ‘Chanties’ by Davis and Tozer;
1888, London: The Music of the Waters (Includes chapter on "English and American 'Chanties;' or, Working Songs of the Sea") by L.A. Smith;
1914, London: Songs of Sea Labour by Bullen and Arnold;
1914, London: English Folk-Chanteys by Sharp;
1917, Minneapolis: “Songs of the Chanty-Man" (series of articles) by Robinson.

In 1915, English musicologist Richard Runciman Terry, in an address to the Royal Musical Association, put forward his belief that the genre should be spelled with "sh", on the grounds that the spelling should correspond to pronunciation.[7] In his subsequent shanty collections he used this spelling consistently.[8] American shanty-collector Joanna Colcord made great use of Terry's first book (even corresponding with the author, and reprinting some of his material), and she, too, deemed it sensible to adopt the "sh" spelling for her 1924 collection.[9] Terry's works were the source for those among the earliest of commercial recordings (from the 1920s) and popular performances of shanties—especially because, unlike many earlier works, they provided scores with piano accompaniment and sufficiently long sets of lyrics. Colcord's work was also very handy, and was used as a source for influential British Folk Revival performers like A.L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl. Terry and Colcord's works were followed by a glut of derivative shanty collections in the 1920s-40s. It would make sense that all those influenced by these works would begin to settle on "shanty" as their preferred spelling.

By the late 20th century, the "sh" spelling had become the more or less standard one in Commonwealth English,[10] whereas "ch" spellings remained in common use mostly in the United States.[11] The "ch" spelling has the benefits of marking off a distinct term and, perhaps, preserving its etymology. The "sh" spelling assists newcomers in correctly pronouncing the word, however it has the potential for confusion with other meanings of "shanty." Perhaps for this reason, the (arguably) redundant phrase "sea shanty" came into being though it had never been used by sailors themselves, nor was it used by knowledgeable writers on the subject; by the 1940s, it had come into use by some lay commentators.[12] Though it has the semantic redundancy of "ATM machine" or "chai tea", "sea shanty/chantey" has become a reality of popular usage.

History and development

Emergence of the genre

Singing or chanting has been done to accompany labor on sea-going vessels among various cultural groups at various times and in various places. A reference to what what seems to be a sailor's hauling chant in The Complaynt of Scotland (1549) is a popularly cited example. Liberal use of the word "shanty" by folklorists of the 20th century[13] expanded the term's conceptual scope to include "sea-related work songs" in general. However, the shanty genre is distinct among the various work song phenomena. Its formal characteristics, specification manner of use, and repertoire cohere to form a picture of a work song genre that emerged in the Atlantic merchant trade of the early 19th century. As original work songs, shanties flourished during a period of about fifty years.

Work chants and "sing-outs"

There is a conspicuous lack of historical references to anything like shanties, as they would come to be known, in the entirety of the 18th century.[14][15] In the second half of the 18th century, English and French sailors were using simple chants to coordinate a few shipboard tasks that required unanimous effort. A dictionary of maritime terms, in describing the anchor-hauling mechanical device known as a windlass, noted the use of such a chant. This particular old-fashioned style of windlass was one that required workers to continually remove and re-insert "handspikes" (wooden leverage bars) into the device to turn its gears.

It requires, however, some dexterity and address to manage the handspec to the greatest advantage; and to perform this the sailors must all rise at once upon the windlass, and, fixing their bars therein, give a sudden jerk at the same instant, in which movement they are regulated by a sort of song or howl pronounced by one of their number.[16]

Rather than any developed songs that characterize shanties, this "howl" and others were probably structured as simple chants in the manner of "1,2,3!" In fact, the same dictionary notes that French sailors said just that, and gives some indication what an English windlass chant was like:

UN, deux, troi, an exclamation, or song, used by seamen when hauling the bowlines, the greatest effort being made at the last word. English sailors, in the same manner, call out on this occasion,—haul-in—haul-two—haul-belay![17]

Such simple or brief chants survived into the 19th century. First-hand observers such as Frederick Pease Harlow, a sailor of the 1870s, attested they were ubiquitous, being brought in whenever a brief task required one.[18] In historical perspective these items have come to be generically called “sing-outs”; even before the known advent of the term “shanty,” Richard Henry Dana (Two Years Before the Mast, 1840) referred to “singing out.”

The wind was whistling through the rigging, loose ropes flying about; loud and, to me, unintelligible orders constantly given and rapidly executed, and the sailors “singing out” at the ropes in their hoarse and peculiar strains.[19]

The vast majority of writers distinguished such chants and “sing-outs” from shanties, but in the case of relatively “simple” shanties—such as those for hauling sheets and tacks (see below)—there is a grey area. This has led some to believe that the more sophisticated shanties of later years developed from the more primitive chants.[20]

Anglo-British and American work songs

A step up in sophistication from the sing-outs was represented by the first widely established sailors’ work song of the 19th century, “Cheer’ly Man.” Though other work-chants were evidently too variable, non-descript, or incidental to receive titles, “Cheer’ly Man” appears referred to by name several times in the early part of the century, and it lived on alongside later-styled shanties to be remembered even by sailors recorded by James Madison Carpenter in the 1920s. “Cheer’ly Man” makes notable appearances in the work of both Dana (sea experience 1834-36) and Herman Melville (sea experience 1841-42).

When we came to mast-head the top-sail yards, with all hands at the halyards, we struck up "Cheerily, men," with a chorus which might have been heard half way to Staten Land. (Dana, Two Years Before the Mast, pg. 413)

The decks were all life and commotion; the sailors on the forecastle singing, "Ho, cheerly men!" as they catted the anchor; (Melville, Omoo, pg. 151)[21]

Though “Cheer’ly Man” could be considered more “developed” than the average sing-out, in its form it is yet different from the majority of shanties that are known to us today. On these grounds one can make a case that it belonged to an earlier era of sailors' song that preceded the emergence of modern shanties.

As noted above, detailed reference to shipboard practices that correspond to shanty-singing is extremely rare before the 1830s. In the first place, singing while working was generally limited to merchant ships, not war ships.The Royal Navy banned singing during work—it was thought the noise would make it harder for the crew to hear commands—though capstan work was accompanied by the bosun's pipe,[22] or else by fife and drum or fiddle.[23]

A Black fiddler accompanying heaving at the capstan, from The Quid (1832).

A writer from the 1830s made this clear:

On board a well-disciplined man-of-war, no person except the officers is allowed to speak during the performance of the various evolutions. When a great many men are employed together, a fifer or a fiddler usually plays some of their favourite tunes; and it is quite delightful to see the glee with which Jack will “stamp and go,” keeping exact time to “Jack's the lad,” or the “College Hornpipe.”[24]

Fife and fiddle were also used, in earlier times, for work aboard merchant vessels.[25]

One of the earliest references to shanty-like songs that has been discovered was made by an anonymous “steerage passenger” in a log of a voyage of an East India Company ship, entitled The Quid (1832). Crew and passengers alike were noted to join in at heaving the capstan around. They were said to sing “old ditties,” along with which a few verses to one or more songs is given.[26] While this practice was analogous to the practice of what is later called “capstan shanties,” the form of the song verses is not particularly similar to later shanties, and these songs do not appear to correspond to any shanty known to us from later eras.

African-American and Caribbean work songs

It is likely that the long, monotonous task of heaving the capstan had long inspired the singing of time-passing songs of various sorts, yet these older songs might be subtly distinguished from the later type of “shanty” songs. Moreover, shanties were of several types, and not all necessarily developed at the same time. The repertoire of so-called “halyard shanties” (see below) coheres into quite a consistent form, and the majority of items in that subgroup seem to reflect an American or, more specifically, African-American origin. By contrast, “capstan shanties” are much more variable in form and origin. For example, the composition of capstan-style "sailor songs" by Norwegian poet Henrik Wergeland as early as 1838[27] implies that Scandinavians also used such songs. Thus it is possible that songs—often of land-based origin—were sung by sailors walking around the capstan, whereas the distinctive “double-pull” format that typifies most halyard songs (also at times used, with slight changes, for pumps, windlass, and capstan) was a later development that appears to owe much to African-American work songs.[28] Later use of the term "shanty," once singing had become comprehensive practice for all tasks, would seem to have incorporated most all types of shipboard work songs under its definition, regardless of style and origin.

Up through the first few decades of the 19th century, White European-American culture, especially the Anglophone—the sailors' "Cheerl'ly Man" and some capstan songs notwithstanding—was not known for work songs. By contrast, African workers, both in Africa and in the New World, were widely noted to sing while working. The fact that Euro-American observers found African work-singers so remarkable (as can be gleaned from the tone of their descriptions) suggests that work songs were indeed rather foreign to their culture. Such references begin to appear in the late 18th century, whence one can see the cliché quickly develop that Black Africans “could not” work without singing. For example, an observer in Martinique in 1806 wrote:

The negroes have a different air and words for every kind of labour; sometimes they sing, and their motions, even while cultivating the ground, keep time to the music.[29]

While the depth of the African-American work song traditions is now recognized, in the early 19th century they stood in stark contrast to the paucity of the such traditions among Euro-Americans. Thus while European sailors had learned to put short chants to use for certain kinds of labor, the paradigm of a comprehensive system of developed work songs for most tasks may have been contributed by the direct involvement of or the imitation of African-Americans.

Through the first half of the 19th century, African-Americans working at various trades were noted to sing songs, the nature and form of which were similar to shanties and which had no precedent in the English tradition. More conclusively, some of the songs they sang also began to appear in use for shipboard tasks, i.e. as shanties.[30]

Leader of Mississippi steamboat hands singing a song from atop a capstan

The work contexts in which African-Americans sang songs comparable to shanties included:

  • Boat-rowing on rivers of the southeastern U.S. and Caribbean;
  • Corn-shucking parties on plantations of the southeastern U.S.;
  • The work of “firemen,” who cast wood into the furnaces of steamboats plying great American rivers;
  • Stevedoring on the U.S. eastern seaboard, the Gulf Coast, and the Caribbean—including "cotton-screwing": the loading of ships with cotton in ports of the American South.

A good example of a work song that was shared between several contexts, including, eventually, sailors working, is "Grog Time o' Day." This song, the tune of which is now lost, was sung by: Jamaican stevedores at a capstan in 1811;[31], Afro-Caribbeans rowing a boat in Antigua ca.1814;[32]Black stevedores loading a steamboat in New Orleans in 1841;[33]and a Euro-American crew hauling halyards on a clipper-brig out of New York ca.1840s.[34] Other such multi-job songs were: "Round the Corn(er), Sally," "Fire Down Below," "Johnny Come Down to Hilo," "Hilo, Boys, Hilo," "Tommy's Gone Away," "The Sailor Likes His Bottle-O," "Highland Laddie," "Mudder Dinah," "Bully in the Alley," "Hogeye Man," "Good Morning, Ladies, All," "Pay Me the Money Down," "Alabama, John Cherokee," "Yankee John, Stormalong," and "Heave Away (My Johnnies)."[35]

While the non-sailor occupations noted in the list above were mainly within the purview of Black laborers, the last of them was one in which non-Blacks also began to engage significantly by the 1840s. These often came from the ranks of sailors of the trans-Atlantic cotton trade, including sailors from the Britain and Ireland who, wanting to avoid the cold winter seasons on the Atlantic, went ashore to engage in the well-paid labor of cotton-screwing.[36] A Euro-American who did just that in 1845 in New Orleans wrote,

The day after our arrival the crew formed themselves into two gangs and obtained employment at screwing cotton by the day... With the aid of a set of jack-screws and a ditty, we would stow away huge bales of cotton, singing all the while. The song enlivened the gang and seemed to make the work much easier.[37]

Shanty-writer Stan Hugill called Mobile Bay—one of the main cotton outports—a "shanty mart," at which sailors and laborers of different cultural backgrounds traded their songs.[38]

Perceptions of contemporary observers

Commenters on the ethnic or national origins of shanties who wrote in the 19th century generally supposed the genre to originate in America, and recognized parallels to African-American singing—as opposed to earlier English traditions from Britain.[39] The first article to offer an opinion on the origin of shanties (though not calling them by that name) seems to be that of one Isaac Allen in Oberlin College’s student paper, 1858, who wrote:

Along the African coast you will hear that dirge-like strain in all their songs, as at work or paddling their canoes to and from shore, they keep time to the music. On the southern plantations you will hear it also, and in the negro melodies every where, plaintive and melodious, sad and earnest. It seems like the dirge of national degradation, the wail of a race, stricken and crushed, familiar with tyranny, submission and unrequited labor… And here I cannot help noticing the similarity existing between the working chorus of the sailors and the dirge-like negro melody, to which my attention was specially directed by an incident I witnessed or rather heard.[40]

The author goes on to relate an incident in which he once heard “a well known strain of music,” finding to his surprise that it was being sung by Black men rowing canoes. His claim is that they were singing,

“Heigh Jim along, Jim along Josey, Heigh Jim along, Jim along Jo!”[41]

The implication is that this song was similar to a sailor song, what we may assume to be the well-known shanty, “Haul Away, Joe” or “Haul Away for Rosie.” Allen did not draw a further connection to the minstrel song, “Jim Along Josey.” It is unknown whether the later song, of unknown composer, was the direct inspiration for “Haul Away, Joe,” however it is possible, too, that an African-American folk or work song was the indirect inspiration for the minstrel song and the shanty.

Much of the shanty repertoire finds parallels in minstrel songs that came to popularity from the 1840s. The poetic meter of the couplets of many minstrel songs is identical to those in shanties, and the non sequitur-type “floating verses” of those songs were heavily borrowed. Again, however, the origins or inspirations of much minstrel repertoire, and to what degree it derived from authentic African-American songs is a matter of debate. In his influential early (1882) article about shanties, William L. Alden drew a comparison between shanties and both authentic African-American songs and the quasi-African-American minstrel songs:

The old sailor songs had a peculiar individuality. They were barbaric in their wild melody. The only songs that in any way resemble them in character are “Dixie,” and two or three other so-called negro songs by the same writer. This man, known in the minstrel profession as “Old Emmett,” caught the true spirit of the African melodies—the lawless, halfmournful, half-exulting songs of the Kroomen. These and the sailor songs could never have been the songs of civilized men… Undoubtedly many sailor songs have a negro origin. They are the reminiscences of melodies sung by negroes stowing cotton in the holds of ships in Southern ports. The “shanty-men,” those hards of the forecastle, have preserved to some extent the meaningless words of negro choruses, and have modified the melodies so as to fit them for salt-water purposes. Certain other songs were unmistakably the work of English sailors of an uncertain but very remote period.[42]

Alden was not writing as a research historian, but rather as an observer of the then-current shanty-singing. His, then, was an impression of shanties based on their style and manner of performance, and he was writing at a time when shanties had yet to become framed by writers and media as belonging to any canon of national “folk music.”

An English author of the period, William Clark Russell, expressed his belief in several works that shanties were American in origin.

I think it may be taken that we owe the sailors' working song as we now possess it to the Americans. How far do these songs date back? I doubt if the most ancient amongst them is much older than the century. It is noteworthy that the old voyagers do not hint at the sailors singing out or encouraging their efforts by choruses when at work. In the navy, of course, this sort of song was never permitted. Work proceeded to the strains of a fiddle, to the piping of the boatswain and his mates, or in earlier times yet, to the trumpet. The working song then is peculiar to the Merchant Service, but one may hunt through the old chronicles without encountering a suggestion of its existence prior to American independence and to the establishment of a Yankee marine.[43]

As time wore on and shanties were established as an indespensible tool aboard the ships of many nations carrying heterogeneous crew, inspiration from several national and cultural traditions fed into the repertoire and their style was subsequently shaped by countless individuals. Whatever their fundamental origins, by the late 19th century shanties constituted the heritage of international seamen, with little or no necessary national associations.

The 19th century

An American packet ship of the Black Ball Line

Established writers about shanties like William Main Doerlinger[44]have characterized shanties (or perhaps a revival in shanty-singing, as Doerflinger theorized) as belonging to an era immediately following the War of 1812 and up to the American Civil War. This was a time when there was relative peace on the seas and shipping was flourishing. The United States came to the fore as a maritime leader, especially due to the nation’s design of packet ships. These ships carried cargo and passengers on fixed schedules, largely operating across the Atlantic. Packet ships were larger and yet sailed with fewer crew than vessels of earlier eras, in addition to the fact that they were expected on strict schedules. This all called for an efficient and disciplined use of human labor. American vessels especially gained reputations for cruelty as officers demanded results from their crew. Schrefler characterizes 19th century shanties as a sort of new “technology” adopted by sailors to adapt to this way of shipboard life.[45]

Recent research, considering a wider range of 19th century sources than had been possible by 20th century writers, shifts the period of the rise and flourishing of shanties to a bit later. [46] The literary evidence suggests that even in the mid-1830s the genre may have been just developing. Shanties came into somewhat regular use by the 1840s, even as focus shifted to the even fasted clipper ships. The received a boost from the heavy emigrant movement of gold rushes in California and Australia. Popular shanties of the 1850s included “A Hundred Years Ago,” “One More Day,” “Santiana,” “Haul on the Bowline,” “Across the Western Ocean,” and especially “Stormalong.”

By the American Civil War, the shanty form was fully developed, after which its repertoire grew and its implementation was widespread and rather standardized. The decade of the 1870s represents the zenith of the genre; those sailors who first went to sea after that decade are considered not to have seen shanties in their prime. In one of the earliest writings to directly address shanties, New York journalist William L. Alden was already lamenting the passing of shanties due to the proliferation of steamships.[47]

The "shanty-man"—the chorister of the old packet ship—has left no successors. In the place of a rousing "pulling song," we now hear the rattle of the steam-winch; and the modern windlass worked by steam, or the modern steam-pump, gives us the clatter of cogwheels and the hiss of steam in place of the wild choruses of other days. Singing and steam are irreconcilable. The hoarse steam-whistle is the nearest approach to music that can exist in the hot, greasy atmosphere of the steam-engine. (Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, July 1882)

Other writers echoed Alden’s lament through and after the 1880s; the first collections of shanties appeared in that decade,[48][49][50] in one sense as a response to what people sensed was a vanishing art. Shanties continued to be used to some extent so long as windjammers were, yet these were few in the early 20th century.

The 20th century

Writing on shanties

Folklorists of the first decade of the 20th century, especially from Britain, included shanties among their interests in collecting folk songs especially those connected with ideas of national heritage. Cecil Sharp and his cohort among the English Folk-Song Society were among the first to take down the lyrics and tunes of shanties directly from the lips of veteran sailors and to publish them more or less faithfully. Their efforts were supported and, perhaps, confused by a number of articles and published collections issued by former sailors themselves. By the 1920s, the body of literature on shanties had grown quite large, yet it was of variable quality. Most editors presented "ideal" versions of songs—not reflecting any one way the shanty may have been sung, but rather a composite idea, edited for print. Bowdlerization and omission of lyrics were typical. Moreover, few authors were trained folklorists and even fewer maintained a critical historical methodology. Editors customarily published fanciful, often nostalgic introductions to the material that included unsubstantiated statements. As a result, though much of the vanishing shanty repertoire was preserved in skeletal form, he genre as a whole was rather re-envisioned, especially as subsequent writers perpetuated the "common knowledge" in earlier texts. The sailors who sang the songs at sea passed on, and the forms of shanties that had been collected were now shaped less by oral-transmission and more by the polishing and reinforcement of written texts, giving birth to "standard" versions.

In these early 20th century collections, the choice of what to include and exclude and how to frame the repertoire all had an effect on how following generations would view the genre. Because sailors who had sung shanties were by this time very old or dead, and the general public had little opportunity to experience performances of shanties, the representations by these authors were all the more influential in mediating information. Three examples will suffice to demonstrate the effect that written works had on the genre.

The English poet John Masefield, following in the footsteps of peers like Rudyard Kipling,[51] seized upon shanties as a nostalgic literary device, and included them along with much older, non-shanty sea songs in his collection A Sailor’s Garland (1906).[52] Though Masefield had sea experience (1891-95), he was not an expert on shanties and the versions he gave of songs cannot be assumed entirely authentic. For example, he admits to never having heard a pumping shanty, and yet he offers one. In one of his earlier articles,[53]his shanties are set to melodies taken verbatim from Davis and Tozer’s earlier work, and he mentions having utilized that and the other available collection (L.A. Smith, 1888) as resources. So while Masefield’s experiences informed his presentation, portions of his work may have been fanciful. More significant is the way in which he framed the songs. Masefield was not along among shanty writers in presenting conjecture as fact in the stories he told about the songs. One can discern his desire to connect shanties with much older English traditions and literature, and his characterization of individual items as such would prove attractive to later enthusiasts. For example, Masefield implied that the shanty “A-roving” (which he titled “The Maid of Amsterdam”) was derived from Thomas Heywood’s The Tragedy of the Rape of Lucrece (1608). His “Lowlands Away” which shows evidence in its chorus of slavish copying from L.A. Smith, contains lyrics with a suspicious resemblance to an earlier ballad (included elsewhere in his collection), but which do not accord with other, field-collected versions. He states that “Haul on the Bowline” was “was certainly in use in the reign of Henry VIII.” The lyrics that he selected to present—and those he may have chose to omit—create a very English tone lacking in the characteristics of American popular songs that had struck earlier writers. Lyrics and ideas from Masefield’s collection became amongs the most quoted or plagiarized in later shanty collections, and by their sheer ubiquity these contributed to how 20th century audiences would envision the genre.

In sharp contrast was the collection by Frank Bullen, Songs of Sea Labour (1914).[54] Its very title denied nostalgia in favor of reality. Bullen, also an Englishman, was an experienced shantyman, who sailed during the zenith of shanties to ports in the Southern U.S. and the Caribbean. He took a firm stance that only true work songs should be included in his collection, thus resisting the temptation to let shanties slide into ballads or other off-duty songs. (Pressure of his publisher forced him to include two forebitter, clearly demarcated, at the end of the book.) And rather shape the shanties to appear as narrative pieces, he noted that, since most shanties would be improvised, it would be disingenuous to present more than one or two sample verses. As for his framing of the genre’s origins, Bullen stated his belief that,

[T]he great majority of these tunes undoubtably emanated from the negroes of the Antilles and the Southern states, a most tuneful race if ever there was one, men moreover who seemed unable to pick up a ropeyarn without a song…

And Bullen’s musicologist editor, Arnold, claimed,

[T]he the majority of the Chanties are Negroid in origin…

Bullen’s insistence on including only true work songs in the collection meant that he likely omitted songs—generally those for heaving tasks, like capstan work—which had been easily borrowed from the land-based traditions of various nations. The effect of including only the most exclusively work-oriented songs meant that a higher percentage of African-American songs were represented.

Cecil Sharp’s English Folk-Chanteys (1914)

Somewhere between these perspectives was Cecil Sharp’s, whose English Folk-Chanteys (1914) was published in the same year. Sharp responds to Bullen’s claims of African-American origins by ceding that many shanties were influenced through the singing of Black shantymen—a position that assumes English folk song was the core of the tradition by default. The title of Sharp’s work reflects his project of collecting and grouping shanties as part of what he conceived to be a rather continuous English folk song tradition. Sharp states in the introduction that he deliberately excluded shanties which were obviously (i.e. to him) born of popular songs. This idea is problematic when one considers that the popular songs that were feeding shanties were largely American and based in real or imagined African-American musical traits. However, Sharp believed that by eliminating such shanties based on popular songs, he could concentrate those that were “folk” songs. Of his own admission, Sharp lacked any shantying or sea experience to intuitively judge shanties like someone like Bullen, however he offers his objectivity, in recording precisely what was sung to him, as consolation. Note that the people Sharp collected shanties from were aged English sailors in Britain. While Sharp’s manner of documenting shanties was more or less objective, the field of his research and his biases in what to collect certainly influenced the outcome of this study. And whereas Bullen’s work was fairly inaccessible, Sharp was influential as the leader of a cohort of folklorists who were actively creating the new received wisdom of folk music.

These studies laid the ground for more writers, many less experienced and/or less rigorous in their methodology of data collection. By the 1920s, the proliferation of shanty collections had begun to facilitate a revival in shanty singing as entertainment for laypersons, which in turn drove the need for yet more general (and often generic and derivative) shanty collections. Writers of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s established a sort of “common knowledge” about shanties that overwrote some of what was known to 19th century observers.

Even while the proliferation of soft-scholarly works was reifying the shanty repertoire, a few American scholars were recording and studying some of the last surviving old sailors that has sung shanties as part of their daily work. Robert Winslow Gordon, founding head of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, recorded sailors singing shanties in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1920s. He later made recordings of African-American work songs in Georgia and elsewhere,[55] and sought to demonstrate correspondences between these and the shanty genre.[56] Even more prolific in collecting shanties was James Madison Carpenter, who recorded shanty singers in Britain, Ireland, and the northeastern U.S. in the late 1920s,[57] allowing him to make observation from an extensive set of field data.[58] Neither of these scholars had the opportunity, however, to publish major works on shanties. Similarly, Alan Lomax's work starting in the 1930s, especially his field recordings of work songs in the Caribbean and Southern U.S., makes a significant contribution to the information on extant shanty-related traditions. Lastly, William Main Doerlinger, carefully recorded and collected shanties from singers in New York and Nova Scotia in the 1930s and 1940s, the result of which was his Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman (1951; revised 1970).[59]

Stan Hugill, author of Shanties from the Seven Seas

One of the most celebrated and useful volumes on shanties produced in the 20th century is Stan Hugill's Shanties from the Seven Seas (1961). It is the largest of its kind, due to Hugill's methodology and chronological position. In respect to methodology, Hugill evidently aimed to be as inclusive as possible—to account for and to present, if sometimes only in fragments, any and all items of shanty repertoire that he was currently able to find. Furthermore, any song that he had heard or read being attested as having been ever "used as shanty" was generally included—regardless of whether that song was not generally known as a shanty or if its use as a shanty was rare and incidental. The result is a varied portrait of the genre, highlighting its maximum diversity without, however, giving a focused sense of what songs were most common during the heyday of shanties or in latter eras. Of particular note is Hugill’s willingness to include more recently popular songs—those that evidently were not sung until after the shanty genre was experiencing decline, but which were extant when Hugill sailed (1920s-40s). Significantly, Hugill also culled from the major collections of non-English-language sailor work songs. Hugill’s practice of liberally culling from all major prior works, in combination with original material from his own field experiences, makes it a handy sourcebook for performers, but a difficult work to assess in terms of historical accuracy.

In respect to chronological position, while Hugill is affectionately known as “The Last Shantyman,” he was also one of the last original shanty collectors.[60] A few original collections followed, notably Roger Abrahams’[61] and Horace Beck’s[62] works on contemporary shantying in the Caribbean, yet most publications in the “song collection” genre are general anthologies based in Hugill and his predecessors’ works. To a great extent, Shanties from the Seven Seas is considered the “last word” on shanties and the first stop as a reference. In this regard it has continued to have a tremendous bearing on how shanties have been understood and performed by enthusiasts since the second half of the 20th century up to today.

Revivals of shanty performance

Even as shanty singing practice to accompany work aboard ships was “dying,” interest was being taken in “reviving” it—as a type of leisure pastime. Most shanty singing since the mid-20th century or earlier is considered to be in such a “revival” vein.

A few of the editors of early chanty collections provided arrangements for pianoforte accompaniment with their shanties. While this may have simply been a customary way of presenting songs or attempting to frame their tonality, it may also suggest they hoped their examples could be performed as well. Remarkably, one of the earliest shanty collections, that of Davis and Tozer (which gained wide circulation in the early 1890s) included such accompaniment, along with safe, “drawing room” style lyrics. There is not much evidence that many performances were based on this otherwise influential work, however, the proceedings from a meeting of the Manchester Literary Club, 4 February 1895, record an instance of laypersons attempting to recreate shanty performance at that early date.[63]

Interested lay performers of shanties, up through the first two decades of the 20th century, would have been hindered by the lack or suitable resources. For example, those collections which did include musical scores did not provide enough verses to create “full” songs, and it is unlikely that such performers would venture to improvise new verses in the manner of traditional shantymen.

Independent of this literature, a revival of sorts was staged by the U.S. Shipping Board in 1918 when Stanton H. King of Boston, a merchant sailor of the 1880s, was appointed as “Official Chantey Man for the American Merchant Marine.”[64] King taught shanties to the young Merchant Marine recruits, but it appears that they were used more for entertainment than work functions. Their daily training schedule included the following:

Recreation includes singing, for each ship is supplied with a piano. The musical program includes old-time chanties, in which the young men are instructed by a veteran deep-water chantie man.[65]

On shore, the a revival in shanty singing for leisure was facilitated by song collections of the 1920s, especially Terry’s The Shanty Book (two volumes, 1921 and 1926). What set apart this and other collections was full musical score along with and adequate stock of lyrics. By 1926, it had become a custom at the Seven Seas Club in London to hold a shanty sing-along after the club’s monthly dinners.[66] By 1928, commercial recordings of shanties, performed in the manner of classical concert singing, had been released on HMV, Vocalion, Parlophone, Edison, Aco, and Columbia labels;[67][68] many were realizations of scores from Terry’s collection. Shanties like “Johnny Come Down to Hilo” were more or less standardized through popular dissemination.

Deep Sea Chanteys and Whaling Ballads, one of the first shanty revival albums

The next revival in shanties occurred as part of the Anglophone folk music revival of the mid-20th century. American folk revival group The Almanac Singers were recruited by Alan Lomax to record several shanties for the 1941 album Deep Sea Chanteys and Whaling Ballads.[69] In Britain, the incorporation of shanties into the folk revival repertoire was largely led by A.L. Lloyd starting in the 1950s. An amateur folklorist, Lloyd shirked earlier classical style of presentation in favor of a more “authentic” performance style. He was generally mysterious about the sources of his shanty arrangements; he obviously referenced collections by editors like Sharp, Colcord, and Doerflinger, however it is often unclear when and whether his versions were based in field experience or his private invention. Lloyd’s album The Singing Sailor (1955)[70] with Ewan MacColl was an early milestone, which made an impression on Stan Hugill when he was preparing his 1961 collection, particularly as the performance style it embodied was considered more appropriate than that of earlier commercial recordings. Many other performers followed, creating influential versions and interpretations of shanties that persist today. For example, Lloyd’s personal interpretation of “South Australia” was taken up by the Irish folk revival group The Clancy Brothers, from which this version spread to countless folk performers to become established as the “standard” form of what is usually presented as a “traditional” shanty. Indeed, one effect of the Folk Revival, through the mass distribution of particular shanty forms through recordings and clubs, has been to create an impression of rather fixed forms of texts and tunes—a sharp contrast to the highly variable and often improvised nature of work shanties (see below). Another effect, due to the fact that most folk performers sang shanties along with other genres, is that shanty repertoire was ever more incorporated within the generic fold of “folk song,” and their distinctive use, manner of performance, and identity were co-opted.

With one foot firmly planted in the world of traditional shanties, Stan Hugill became also a leader (and follower) of trends in the folk music revival. His presence as an exclusive performer of sailor songs did much to establish sea music as a revival genre apart from or within folk music. By the late 1970s, the activities of enthusiasts and scholar-performers at places like the Mystic Seaport Museum (whose Sea Music Festival started in 1979) and the San Francisco Maritime Museum established sea music—inclusive of shanties, sea songs, and other maritime music—as a genre with its own circuit of festivals, record labels, performance protocol, and so on.

Nature of the songs

In the days when human muscles were the only power source available aboard ship, shanties served a practical purpose: the rhythm of the song served to synchronize the movements of the sailors or to pace the labor as they toiled at repetitive tasks. Shanties also served a social purpose: some find singing and listening to songs to be pleasant, and for these people it alleviates boredom and lightens the burden of hard work, of which there was no shortage on long voyages in those days.

All shanties had a chorus or some sort, in order to allow the crew to sing all together. Most shanties had a "call and response" format, with one voice (the shantyman) singing the solo lines and the sailors bellowing the refrains in response (compare military cadence calls). For example, singing a verse of the shanty "Boney" (about Napoleon) is structured as follows:

Shantyman (solo): Boney was a warrior,
All (refrain): Way, hey, ya!
Shantyman (solo): A warrior and a tarrier,
All (refrain): Jean-François!

Working it as a short-drag or sheet shanty (see below), hands on the line would synchronize their pulls with the last syllable of each response.

Musically, shanties reflect a variety of sources. A discussed above, there is a high correspondence between shanties and African-American songs of both work and leisure. Popular music of the time was readily adapted, especially the minstrel music genre. It is easy to find phrases from minstrel songs of the late 1830s and 1840s in many shanties, like "A Long Time Ago," "Jamboree," "Johnny Come Down to Hilo," or "Johnny Bowker." Music hall songs also had an influence, for example "Paddy on the Railway." Popular marches were especially borrowed for capstan work, including "John Brown's Body" and "Marching Through Georgia." A few shanties have ballad forms, such as "The Dreadnaught," "The Banks of Newfoundland," and "The Golden Vanitee," but these were relatively uncommon and required the addition of a chorus section. However, shantymen often adapted lyrics and themes from ballads and spliced them to customary shanty forms. Other shanties were adapted from land-based "folk" songs, for example "Billy Boy" and "The Derby Ram."

Lyrically, like the blues, shanties often exhibit a string of stock verses without much explicit, continuous theme.

The shantyman

The shantyman was a sailor who led the others in singing. He was usually self-appointed. A sailor would not generally sign on as a shantyman per se, but took on the role in addition to their other tasks on the ship. Nevertheless, sailors reputed to be good shantymen were valued and respected.

Types of shanties

While shanties were often ascribed to a specific shipboard task, quite often, too, the same shanty could be fitted to another task. Broadly speaking, the categories for shanties can be understood in terms of whether the task(s) for which they were used was/were related to hauling or heaving. Hauling or pulling actions were intermittent in nature. They required a coordinated show of focused exertion, not sustained, but rather at specific and brief points in time. Shanties for hauling tasks thus coordinated the timing of those exertions, the "pulls." Heaving or push actions were continuous. Coordination was of minor importance as compared to pacing. Rather than rhythmically timing the labor, shanties for heaving were more intended to set an appropriate, manageable pace and to occupy or inspire workers throughout the duration of what could often be long tasks.

Shanty types related to hauling actions

Long-drag,[71] also called "halyard (halliard)"[72] or "long-haul"[73] shanty: Sung when a job of hauling on halyards to hoist topsails. Usually there are two pulls per chorus as in "Way, hey, Blow the man down!" Examples: "Hanging Johnny," "A Long Time Ago," and "Blow the Man Down."

Sailors hauling a line

Hand over hand[74]

Short-drag,[75] also called "short-haul"[76] or "[fore/main]sheet"[77]) shanty: Sung for short hauling jobs requiring a few bursts of great force, such as charging direction of sails via lines called sheets or tacks. A shanty of this type was once also used for catting anchor (manually hauling an anchor to bring it to the cathead). These are characterized by one strong pull per chorus, typically on the last word, as in "Way, haul away, haul away "Joe"'!" Examples: "Boney", "Haul on the Bowline," and "Haul Away Joe."

  • Sample: "Haul Away Joe" (audio), sung by A. Wilkins, Eastern U.S., ca. 1930-32. From the U.S. Library of Congress, R.W. Gordon Collection.
  • Sample : "Cheer'ly Man" (video), an old-fashioned shanty for catting anchor, recreated from Cecil Sharp's 1914 collection.

Sweating-up, also called "swigging up" shanty: Sung for very brief hauling tasks, as for a few sharp pulls on a halyard to gain maximum tautness of a sail. These short chants are often classed as "sing outs," but their form differs little from sheet shanties.

  • Sample: "Haul the Woodpile Down" (audio) sung by unnamed sailor in San Francisco Bay area, early 1920s. From the U.S. Library of Congress, R.W. Gordon Collection.

Bunting: "Paddy Doyle's Boots" is universally attested as one of the few, exclusive bunting shanties. However, "Saint Helena Soldier" [78] and "Johnny Bowker."[79] have also been noted.

Stamp-'n'-Go[80] (also called "runaway,"[81] "walk away"[82]): were used only on ships with large crews. Many hands would take hold of a line with their backs to the fall (where the line reaches the deck from aloft) and march away along the deck singing and stamping out the rhythm. Alternatively, with a larger number of men, they would create a loop—marching along with the line, letting go at the 'end' of the loop and marching back to the 'top' of the loop to take hold again for another trip.

On vessels of war, the drum and fife or boatswain's whistle furnish the necessary movement regulator. There, where the strength of one or two hundred men can be applied to one and the same effort, the labor is not intermittent, but continuous. The men form on either side of the rope to be hauled, and walk away with it like firemen marching with their engine. When the headmost pair bring up at the stern or bow, they part, and the two streams flow back to the starting-point, outside the following files. Thus in this perpetual “follow-my-leader “ way the work is done, with more precision and steadiness than in the merchant-service.[83]

These songs tend to have longer choruses similar to capstan shanties. Examples: "Drunken Sailor", "Roll the Old Chariot". Stan Hugill, in his Shanties from the Seven Seas writes: "(Drunken Sailor) is a typical example of the stamp-'n'-go song or walkaway or runaway shanty, and was the only type of work-song allowed in the King's Navee (sic). It was popular in ships with big crews when at halyards; the crowd would seize the fall and stamp the sail up. Sometimes when hauling a heavy boat up the falls would be 'married' and both hauled on at the same time as the hands stamped away singing this rousing tune."

Shanty types related to heaving actions

Sailors working at a capstan

Capstan[84] shanty: Raising the anchor on a ship involved winding the rope along a giant winch, turned by sailors walking around it. Capstan shanties are anchor-raising shanties. They are typically more "smooth" sounding than other types (no pulling required) and, unlike many other types of shanties, frequently have a full chorus in addition to the call-and-response verses. Examples: "Santianna", "Paddy Lay Back", "Rio Grande", "South Australia", "John Brown's Body" (adapted from Army marching song).

Windlass shanty:

  • Sample: A brake windlass shanty: YouTube video - "Cheer Up, My Lively Lads," led by Chris Koldewey and Carl Thornton on the schooner L.A. Dunton at the Mystic Sea Music Festival, 2010. Note: this is a small windlass, and the operation of it is a bit different from those on larger vessels.

Pumping: All wooden ships leak somewhat. There was a special hold (cargo area) in the ships where the leaked-in water (the bilge) would collect: the bilge hold. The bilge water had to be pumped out frequently; on period ships this was done with a two-man pump. Many pumping shanties were also used as capstan shanties, and vice versa, particularly after the adoption of the Downton pump which used a capstan rather than pump handles moved up and down. Examples include: "Strike The Bell", "Shallow Brown", "Barnacle Bill the Sailor", "Lowlands".

  • A pump shanty: YouTube video -- "South Australia," lead by Stan Hugill with fellow participants at a shanty-sing during the Workum Shanty Festival, 1990.
Operation of Downton pump

Other types of shanties: Shanties might come into play for other, miscellaneous tasks. Common among these was loading or discharging cargo in port. Though rarely noted, songs used to accompany the task of holystoning the deck have been attested. Shanties have also been well-documented in use for tasks other than those central to the deep-water trade. The above-mentioned working of cargo was performed by stevedores to the accompaniment of shanties, for example in the tradition of the Georgia Sea Island Singers of St. Simon's Island, Georgia. They used such shanties as "Knock a Man Down" (a version of "Blow the Man Down") to load heavy timber. Menhaden chanties refers to work songs used on menhaden fishing boats, sung while pulling up the purse-seine nets. The musical forms, and consequently the repertoire, or menhaden chanties differ significantly from the deepwater shanties, most noticeably in the fact that the workers "pull" in between rather than in sync with the words of the songs. Typical examples are "The Johnson Girls" and "Won't You Help Me to Raise 'Em Boys".

  • A French rowing shanty: YouTube video -- "Hourra les filles à cinq deniers," performed by The NexTradition.
  • A menhaden chantey YouTube video -- "Won't You Help Me to Raise Um," performed by The Northern Neck Chantey Singers.

The above categories are not absolute. Sailors could (and did) take a song from one category and, with necessary alterations to the rhythm, use it for a different task. The only rule almost always followed was that songs that spoke of returning home were only sung on the homeward leg, and songs that sang of the joys of voyaging etc., were only sung on the outward leg. Other songs were very specific. "Poor Old Man" (also known as "Poor Old Horse" or "The Dead Horse") was sung once the sailors had worked off their advance (the "horse") a month or so into the voyage. "Leave Her, Johnny Leave Her" (also known as "Time for Us to Leave Her") was only sung during the last round of pumping the ship dry once it was tied up in port, prior to leaving the ship at the end of the voyage.

Shanties versus sea songs

Early 19th century Royal Navy sailors singing while off duty.

Shanties are work songs and were sung only for work. However, sailors also sang for pleasure in the fo'c's'le (forecastle) where they slept or, in fine weather, gathered near the fore bitts (large posts on the foredeck). While songs with maritime themes were sung, all manner of popular songs and ballads on any subject might be sung off watch. The songs associated with sailors are labeled simply as "sea songs," but they have no consistent formal characteristics. They are also popularly known among enthusiasts, especially when distinguishing them from shanties, as fo'c's'le songs or forebitters. Though those terms were not in great evidence in the 19th century, some literary references to "fore-bitter" and, less so, "fo'c'sle song," attest to their use even prior to the appearance of "shanty."[85]

In the Royal Navy, music of all kinds was permitted during off-duty times and was popular with both officers and crew; it was encouraged by some captains, who took pride in having a good band on their ship.[23]

Unlike shanties, during the singing of which one's hands were occupied, sea songs might be sung to the accompaniment of handy instruments like violin or concertina.

Examples of sea songs include "Spanish Ladies",[86] first popular in the Royal Navy,[87] and "The Stately Southerner", a ballad about a U.S. war ship.[88] Examples of sea songs that were poorly documented for the sailing era, but which gained great popularity among singers in the revival era, are "The Leaving of Liverpool" and "Rolling Down to Old Maui."

Shanties in languages other than English

While the crews of merchant ships in which shanties were sung came from a wide variety of national and ethnic backgrounds and may have had various mother-tongues, the shanty genre was by and large an English-language phenomenon. This is not to say that crews speaking other languages did not have shipboard work songs. However, what we know as shanties as a ubiquitous and comprehensive practice of singing a certain type of work song aboard ship was born among English-speaking cultures (including the African-American and Caribbean).

This being noted, non-English-language shanties did exist in significant number, generally of these types:

  • Preexisting non-English-language songs from the popular or folk song traditions of a linguistic group, which were adapted to the shanty paradigm;
  • Preexisting, original shipboard worksongs from non-English-speaking peoples, retrofitted to the definition of "shanty";
  • Newly created non-English-language songs, designed to fit the established shanty paradigm;
  • Translations of English shanties into other languages, many time preserving English choruses.

There are notable bodies of shanty repertoire in Swedish, Norwegian, Plattdeutsch, Standard German, French, and Welsh, and shanties have been translated into Polish and Dutch. The terms for shanties in these languages do not precisely correlate with English usage. In French, chant de marin or "sailor's song" is a broad category that includes both work and leisure songs. Swedish uses sjömansvisa, "sailor song," as a broad category but tends to use the borrowed "shanty" to denote a work song. Similarly, Norwegian uses sjømannsvise as the broad category and the borrowed term sjanti (also spelled "shanty") or the native opsang for work songs. The equivalents in German are Seemannslied and, again, shanty. A shanty in Polish is szanty.

Substantial collections of non-English shanties include the following. These were instrumental in forming the modern day shanty repertoires of revival performers in their respective languages:


  • Hayet, Capt. Armand: Chansons de Bord. Editions Eos, Paris, 1927.


  • Baltzer, R. and Klaus Prigge. “Knurrhahn”: Sammlung deutscher und englisher Seemannslieder und Shanties wie sie auf deutschen Segelschiffen gesungen wurden. Vol. 1, 2. Kiel: A. C. Ehlers, 1935-6.


  • Brochmann, H. Opsang fra Seilskibstiden. Christiania: Norske Förlags Kompani Ltd., 1916.


  • Sternvall, Sigurd. Sång under Segel. Albert Bonniers Förlag, 1935.

Performance of shanties today

Historically, shanties were usually not sung outside of work contexts, and singing sea songs was generally the purview of sailors. However, since their revival as leisure songs among laypersons they have been performed in a variety of contexts. Similarly to Euro-American folk music, shanties and sea songs are performed both informally by amateurs and as commercial entertainment by professionals, with many performers operating in both contexts. Some performers focus on shanties, sea songs, and related material, as part of the genre of maritime music, whereas in other cases performers of popular music (including the folk genre) and classical music brought songs from the shanty repertoire into their own.

Regional trends

Devoted performances of shanties display certain customs and general trends in different areas. However, the genre is an international one; practices vary freely and are not limited to the following generalizations.

North America

In North America, enthusiasts often gather at regularly scheduled, open singing sessions, for example the "chantey sIngs" monthly aboard the ship Balclutha in San Francisco[89] or weekly in Gloucester, Mass.[90] At these sessions, any participant is free to start up and lead a shanty, to which the rest of those present—sometimes over one hundred or more participant—join on the choruses. The gatherings aim for an inclusive atmosphere that welcomes people of all ages, genders, ethnicities, and singing abilities. North American professionals often perform solo or in very small groups, frequently using instruments. Annual maritime festivals in coastal towns provide a gathering point for both amateurs and professionals, and the site for the introduction of new interpretations.

  • Sample: Assembled performers and audience, led by staff shantyman Don Sineti, join in singing the sea song "Rolling Down to Old Maui" (video), one of the closing rituals of the Mystic Seaport Sea Music Festival—a mecca for maritime music enthusiasts in North America.

United Kingdom

In the U.K., shanties find a venue in pubs that host "folk clubs." Professional performers tend to be in larger groups with a more substantial chorus, allowing for a capella performances. They are frequently identify with a specific port town. Many annual maritime festivals in Britain and across the Channel provide contexts for them.

  • Sample: "Reuben Ranzo" (video), a shanty performed by The Keelers at the SummerTyne Festival in Northeast England.

Northern Europe

A German shanty choir.

Shanty choirs (German shantychor, Dutch shantykoor), often large choral groups that perform only sailor songs, are especially popular in the Netherlands, Germany, and Norway.


Polish performers of shanties favor medium-sized groups, often singing in harmony and accompanying themselves on instruments, and presenting themselves similarly to rock bands.

  • Sample: Two Polish groups, Cztery Refy and Sąsiedzi, perform "Randy Dandy O" (video) at the 2010 Kubryk festival.

Shanties borrowed into other genres

Many items from the shanty and sea song repertoire have found their way into the repertoires of performers of Folk (i.e. the popular music genre), Rock, and Western Classical music. The source for most of these borrowings has been books by folklorists and commercial recordings by shanty revival performers. As a result, the forms they produce tend to be quite "standardized" and relate to their source material similar to the way a "cover song" does. This can be contrasted with the method of performers focusing on maritime music, who tend to think of themselves as operating within a genre or a "tradition" and develop their repertoire from multiple sources and through various experiences.


The Folk Revival movement is one in which shanties themselves were often revived, especially as they have been viewed as a branch of heritage folk songs. Many of the early performers in the Folk genre performed and recorded a significant number of sailor songs. For example, Paul Clayton recorded the album Whaling and Sailing Songs from the Days of Moby Dick (Tradition Records) in 1956, and Burl Ives' Down to the Sea in Ships came out in the same year. Since at least the 1950s, then certain shanties have became staples of the Folk genre. This is evidenced in the popular Folk music fake book Rise Up Singing, which includes such shanties as "Blow the Man Down," "What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor," and "Bound for South Australia."[91]


Borrowings in Rock music have often resulted from the fluid borders between Folk and Rock performers and audiences. For example, Bruce Springsteen's "Pay Me My Money Down" derives from the interpretation by the Folk group The Weavers, who in turn found it among the collected shanties once traditionally performed by residents of the Georgia Sea Islands. Some Rock performers, too, have been inspired to adopt shanties as part of what they perceive to be a connect to their regional or national heritage. For example, The Pogues recorded "Poor Paddy [Works on the Railway" in the arrangement of Folk group The Dubliners, ostensibly because of the Irish connection. Others are fascinated by "sea" themes, including "pirates" and the perceived freedom, wildness, or debauchery of sailor culture.


Classical composers have used shanties and sea songs (or their melodies) in their works. The English composer Percy Grainger is a notable case. Malcolm Arnold's "Three Shanties for Woodwind Quintet" (2005) develops motifs from "Drunken Sailor," "Blow the Man Down," and "Johnny Come Down to Hilo."

Style and repertoire

Shanty performances today reflect a wide range of musical tastes. The purpose and parameters of shanty singing in the present era have had an influence on which shanties are sung and how.

Performers who favor a "traditional" style do not generally believe they are replicating the exact style of shanty singing of the 19th century. However, within the constraints of modern contexts, they tend to adhere to certain stylistic characteristics hat are believed to have defined the genre historically. These may include a loud or full voice (not requiring microphone), an emphatic, strident—even harsh—tone (as if to carry over the noise of wind and waves), and tempos and rhythms that are reasonably conducive to work songs. They often perform a capella or only with light instrumentation typical of sailors (e.g. concertina). In general, performances may be more "rough around the edges" and be of variable length to accommodate impromptu changes in verses.

A great many of the performers of shanties do so in what might be distinguished as a "folk music" style. They tend to be more interested in the songs themselves and less in the "shanty style" of performance, in favor of music that may be considered more pleasant, less rough, and with more variation and interest than traditional shanties. Stylistic characteristics include lighter vocals with a "folk" timbre, livelier tempos, and instrumental interludes between verses. Invariably these performers choose to accompany themselves on instruments like guitar and banjo. Their rhythms may be syncopated and quite different than work song rhythms, relying on the instruments to keep time rather than the voice.

Still other performers come to shanties from backgrounds in Pop, Rock, or theatrical music, and perform in what may be called a "contemporary" style. Some of the preferred characteristics are smooth, Pop-style vocal timbre, carefully worked out harmony, and engaging rhythm.

Less commonly—though it was the case with the earliest commercial recordings—shanties are performed in a "classical" choir style. Choirs like the Robert Shaw Chorale (Sea Shanties, Living Stereo, 1961), the Norman Luboff Choir (Songs of the Sea, Columbia, 1956), and The Seafarers Chorus (We Sing of the Sea, Elektra, 1960) released entire albums of shanties and sea songs.

Because shanties are performed nowadays primarily as entertainment, adjustments are made to their historical manner of performance. They may be shortened or lengthened to accommodate more "typical" song length. Their tempo may be increased to be more lively. Lyrics are adjusted to suit the sensibilities of contemporary audiences.

This orientation has an effect on what repertoire is chosen, too. Many of the shanties, especially the short drag type, hold too little interest. In some cases, these types of shanties have been altered to make them more amenable. For example, "Haul Away Joe" was a shanty were, in practice, only a few verses were necessary. But singers today will spin out a great number of verses. They may also add a recurring refrain, which would have had no functional place in the original. And rather than the sharp grunts that figured into historical performance, they will sing smooth, sustained tones.

Whereas the halyard type (long drag) shanties were unique to the genre, others like the capstan type had been borrowed from entertainment songs of the shore. This means that the latter, which tend to have longer chorus, a degree of narrative, and more interesting melodies, are easily adapted back for entertainment. And as a result, songs like this tend to be preferred by today's performers.

Whereas shanties in the past were understood as a form in much variation and improvisation was expected and which one might comment on immediate or current events, most performers today approach them as "traditional" songs whose past, documented lyrics are more or less adhered to. This means that performances of a given song tend to be more stable from singer to singer. Yet some historical lyrics, too, are distasteful in light of current attitudes, meaning those songs are more liable to be omitted from performers' repertoires. In addition, the vast majority of today's shanty performers and audiences are of Euro/American background, however numerous historical shanties speak through a Black ethnic voice. Current reservations about performing material associated strongly with ethnic groups other than one's own can also lead to a preference away from these and towards other songs.[92]

In popular media

Anachronous use of shanties in films and other popular media led people to associate the genre with earlier epochs, the Navy, and fanciful "pirates."

While shanties were historically understood as work songs, the word "shanty" has often been used in popular culture since the mid-20th century as a catch-all term which also includes songs supposed to have been sung during leisure time at sea, and even other songs about the sea or which vaguely inspire thoughts of the sea. Much of the historical shanty repertoire, being by definition designed to suit work, is less attractive as entertainment listening. The musical forms were highly repetitive, and the lyrics were quite often "doggerel" without any cohesive or preconceived composition. For these reasons, sea songs that were never or only exceptionally adapted as shanties--but which have engaging melodies and texts--have proved popular to 20th century audiences under the rubric of "shanties." Both these non-shanty sea songs and the historical repertoire of shanties are typically performed with instrumental accompaniment -- something that was rare or unheard of at sea.

The musical style of shanties has inspired new musical compositions, ranging from those intended to imitate 19th century songs to those merely intended to evoke seafaring through token phrases and musical features. Well known examples include the Stan Rogers song, "Barrett's Privateers," the Steve Goodman song, "Lincoln Park Pirates," and the theme song for the television show SpongeBob SquarePants (having a similar musical feel to "Blow the Man Down"). Even the song "Reise, Reise" by the Neue Deutsche Härte band Rammstein is based on a shanty, "Reise, Reise". The Mariner's Revenge Song by The Decemberists is claimed to be in a sea shanty style though it does not really follow the style and characteristics of a shanty.

A medley of sea songs performed by classical orchestra, Sir Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea Songs, is a popular component of the Last Night of the Proms in Britain. In a completely different style, the bawdy sea song "Frigging in the Rigging" was recorded by the Sex Pistols.

In fiction literature

I soon got used to this singing; for the sailors never touched a rope without it. Sometimes, when no one happened to strike up, and the pulling, whatever it might be, did not seem to be getting forward very well, the mate would always say, "Come, men, can't any of you sing? Sing now, and raise the dead." And then some one of them would begin, and if every man's arms were as much relieved as mine by the song, and he could pull as much better as I did, with such a cheering accompaniment, I am sure the song was well worth the breath expended on it. It is a great thing in a sailor to know how to sing well, for he gets a great name by it from the officers, and a good deal of popularity among his shipmates. Some sea-captains, before shipping a man, always ask him whether he can sing out at a rope. (Herman Melville, Redburn: His First Voyage, 1849)

Fifteen men on the dead man's chest is the first line of the chorus of a fictional sea song from Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Treasure Island (1883).

In film and television

Songs belonging to the shanty repertoire have appeared in motion pictures. Most times these are not in an appropriate work context and sometimes not even a shipboard context, and many times they can be classed as anachronisms. The following is a sample list of films and the shanties they include.

The Phantom Ship (1935): "Whiskey Johnny", "New York Girls", "Johnny Come Down to Hilo", "Sally Brown"
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935): "Drunken Sailor" (tune only), "Hanging Johnny"
The Ghost Ship (1943): "Blow the Man Down"
The Curse of the Cat People (1944): "Reuben Ranzo"
Great Expectations (1946): "Sally Brown"
Treasure Island (1950): "Johnny Come Down to Hilo" (tune only)
Moby Dick (1956): "Come Down You Bunch of Roses" (as "Blood Red Roses"), "Heave Away, My Johnnies", "A-Roving", "Paddy Doyle's Boots", "Sally Brown", "Reuben Ranzo"
Billy Budd (1962): "Hanging Johnny"
Roots (1977): "Haul the Bowline", "Haul Away, Joe"—on the brig Lonesome Dove (1989): "Rise Me Up from Down Below" (aka "Whiskey-O")
Moby Dick (1998): "New York Girls, "Cape Cod Girls" ("Bound Away to Australia"), "Donkey Riding", and "Haul Away Joe"
Gangs of New York (2002): "New York Girls"
Moby Dick (2010): "Lowlands Away", "Blow You Winds Southerly," "Blood Red Roses," ""The Hog-Eye Man", "Leave Her Johnny," "Haul Away Joe"

Shanty and sea music performers

Traditional-style performers

  • Armstrong's Patent, from the Netherlands
  • Jerry Bryant, from Maine
  • The Barrouallie Whalers, of St. Vincent & the Grenadines, partially composed of men who used to subsist on off-shore whaling.
  • The Boarding Party
  • Cabestan, from France
  • Johnny Collins, a modern-day shantyman (1938–2009). [What made him a modern day shantyman any more than others?]
  • The Exmouth Shantymen
  • Forebitter, group featuring performers associated with the Mystic Seaport Museum.
  • Dick Holdstock & Allan MacLeod
  • Stan Hugill, "Last Working Shantyman" (1906–1992).
  • The Idlers, an all-male a cappella shanty group at the United States Coast Guard Academy (1957–present)
  • The Johnson Girls, an all female shanty group from New York.
  • Peter Kasin and Richard Adrianowicz
  • Tom and Chris Kastle, from Chicago.
  • The Keelers
  • Kimbers Men
  • Tom Lewis, Canadian performer.
  • Nanne Kalma, Dutch performer.
  • Northern Neck Chantey Singers, a menhaden shanty group, some of whom learned the songs as work songs on fishing boats when they were young men. [3]
  • Roberts and Barrand, from New York and New England (1969—)
  • Salty Walt & the Rattlin' Ratlines, from San Francisco.
  • The Shanty Crew
  • Stormalong John
  • Bob Walser
  • Bob Webb
  • The X Seamen's Institute, from New York City.

Folk music-style performers

  • Peter Bellamy, British folk singer based in New York. (1944-1981). Wrote "Roll Down" (aka "Transports Shanty") and the tune commonly used for "Fire Maringo."
  • Debra Cowan, sea music performer from Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.
  • Roger McGuinn, from Chicago.
  • William Pint and Felicia Dale, from Seattle.
  • Bob Roberts, British Merchant Seaman and folk singer (1907–1982)
  • Stan Rogers, Canadian performer (1949–1983).
  • Cyril Tawney, British performer (1930–2005).
  • John Townley, also known for opening the first 12-track recording studio in New York, Apostolic Studios.
  • Bob Zentz

Contemporary-style performers

  • Banana Boat, an a cappella sextet from Poland performing "neo-shanties" as well as traditional sea-shanties in contemporary arrangements.
  • Bounding Main, an a cappella sextet based near Kenosha, Wisconsin.
  • Captain Bogg and Salty, a pirate-themed rock band which performs many traditional shanties, as well as writing several of their own.
  • Great Big Sea, Canadian band performing some shanties in traditional style.
  • The Jolly Rogers, a modern-day pirate-themed band and comedy performance group.
  • Jon Campbell, composer of nautically-themed folk songs including Tanqueray Martini-O! which was often performed by the late Johnny Collins.
  • Storm Weather Shanty Choir

Other projects

  • Johnny Depp reportedly developed an interest in sea shanties while filming Pirates of the Caribbean. As a result, in 2006 he helped facilitate Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys. Some have observed that while the individual song recordings are of variable quality, many of the better ones are interesting modern interpretations of the songs.[93]
  • Hulton "Ranzo" Clint (pseudonym) has been engaged in a four-year project of studying, learning, and recording all of the shanties collected by Stan Hugill in Shanties from the Seven Seas.[94]


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  3. ^ Clark, Seven Years, pg. [##]
  4. ^ Nordhoff, Charles. The Merchant Vessel. Cincinatti: Moore, Wilstach, Keys & Co., 1855. Pg. [##]
  5. ^ Dallas, E. S., ed. “On Shanties.” Once a Week 31 (1 Aug. 1868).
  6. ^ Payn, James, ed. “Sailors’ Shanties and Sea Songs.” Chambers’s Journal 4(311) (11 December 1869): 794-6.
  7. ^ Terry, Richard Runciman. “Sea Songs and Shanties.” Journal of the Royal Music Association 11(41), 1915. Pp. 135-140.
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  9. ^ Colcord, Joanna C. Roll and Go. London: Heath Cranton, 1924.
  10. ^ e.g. Oxford English Dictionary [reference needed]
  11. ^ This is attested by its use by institutions such as maritime museums and the Library of Congress
  12. ^ e.g. [Reference needed - pick an example]
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  15. ^ Doerflinger, William Main, Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman. Mayerbooks, Glenwood, 1990. Pg. [##]
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  19. ^ Dana, Richard Henry, Jr. Two Years Before the Mast. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1840. Pg. [##]
  20. ^ e.g., Fox Smith, Cicely. A Book of Shanties. London: Methuen & Co., 1927. Pg. [##]
  21. ^ Melville, Herman. Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas. London: John Murray.
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  28. ^ "The Advent and Development of Chanties"
  29. ^ “Dances of the Negroes of the Island of Martinico.” Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine (May 1806): 202-3.
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  31. ^ Hay, Robert. Landsman Hay: The Memoirs of Robert Hay 1789-1847. Ed. by M.D. Hay., 1953. Pg. [##]
  32. ^ British Naval Officer, a. Service Afloat. Philadelphia: Edward C. Mielke, 1833. Pg. [##]
  33. ^ Author unknown. Negro Singer’s Own Book, ca.1843-45. Pg. [##]
  34. ^ “An Old Salt.” “Quarter-deck yarns; or, Memorandums from My Log Book.” In The Evergreen; or Gems of Literature for MDCCL. Rice, Rev. Edward A., ed. New York: J. C. Burdick, 1850. Pg. [##]
  35. ^ "The Advent and Development of Chanties," discussion dated 20 March, 2010ff, The Mudcat Café.
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  43. ^ Russell, W. Clark. The Romance of Jenny Harlowe. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1889. Pg. [#].
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  48. ^ Luce, Naval Songs, 1882
  49. ^ Davis and Tozer, 1887
  50. ^ Smith, Laura, Music of the Waters, 1888
  51. ^ e.g. Kipling, Rudyard. “The Last Chanty.” In The Pall Mall Magazine, ed. by Frederic Hamilton and Douglas Straight. Vol. 1. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1893. Pp. 129-132.
  52. ^ Masefield, John. A Sailor’s Garland. London: Methuen & Co., 1906.
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  90. ^ [2] Accessed 10 Nov. 2011.
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  94. ^

External links

General information, resources, and lyrics
Working shantymen
Annual sea music festivals
  • The Bitter End contains a comprehensive list of forthcoming festivals across the world.

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