Sea Song and Chanty History

The History Of Sea-Songs,  Shanties & Ballads

Music has played a central part in life at sea by providing not only entertainment and contributing to the health and morale of seamen but also rhythm and cohesion to the everyday tasks of sailors and fishermen. Sea shanties were  rhythmic songs that helped the sailors “keep the time” during work tasks. Pulling line to raise or trim sails, weighing anchor, or the ever-monotonous work on the bilge pumps were all made less mundane by a cheerful song. The more fitting the song, the easier the work, as Richard Dana describes in Two Years Before The Mast and Twenty Four Years After (Harvard, 1909):

We often found a great difference in the effect of the different songs in driving in the hides. Two or three songs would be tried, one after the other, with no effect;—not an inch could be got upon the tackles—when a new song, struck up, seemed to hit the humor of the moment, and drove the tackles “two blocks” at once. “Heave round hearty!” “Heave round hearty!” “Captain gone ashore!” and the like, might do for common pulls, but in an emergency, when we wanted a heavy, “raise-the-dead” pull, which should start the beams of the ship, there was nothing like “Time for us to go!” “Round the corner,” or “Hurrah! hurrah! my hearty bullies!”

Apart from working songs, there were also ballads,  or sailor's folk-songs, which, at sea, "is sung in the second dog-watch"(1) and "in port, at night, after supper. Ashore, where those wants do not exist, there is nothing quite like them. At sea, where those wants are ever present, they are of every nationality"(2)

"The most beautiful chanty I have ever heard was sung by a Norwegian crew. I have heard two Greek chanties of great beauty, and I am told that the Russians have at least one as beautiful as any of our own. "(3) 

The importance of music in 16th Century ship life is noted In Sir Humphrey Gilbert's Voyage to Newfoundland, by Edward Hayes, the commander of the ship the Golden Hinde (1580),  who writes, "Besides, for solace of our people, and allurement of the savages, we were provided of music in good variety;"

In fact, music was so important to English Seadog,  Sir Francis Drake, that he requested professional musicians on his voyage in 1589. Having heard of the great quaility of their music, Drake asked the mayor of Norwich to send the waits for his forthcoming Portuguese voyage; as it turned out,  the waits wanted to go, and the mayor's court accepted the invitation. The Nowich courtship bought for the waits: six cloaks, three new hautboys, a treble recorder, provided a wagon to carry them and their instruments, and gave them ten pounds each for their expenses (4). Unfortunately, one of the Norwich waits, Anthony Wyllson, died on Drake's voyage.

In 1785, James Boswell, in The Journal of a Tour To The Hebrides With Samuel Johnson, LL.D., writes:
 "Our boatmen sung with great spirit. Dr Johnson observed, that naval musick was very ancient. As we came near the shore, the singing of our rowers was succeeded by that of reapers, who were busy at work, and who seemed to shout as much as to sing, while they worked with a bounding activity."

However, generally speaking, most scholars would agree that the 19th century was the golden age for "shanty singing", ironically this coincided with the end of  the sailing era. For as the great ships of sail slowly died out, and were superseded by steam, so did alot of the great ballads and shanties disappear.

Yet, even in earlier time periods shanties and ballads sometimes struggled to survive, in the 18th Century not all sailors were permitted to sing songs. In Nelson’s Navy for example, sea songs and ditties were banned and replaced with calling out a cadence of numbers or the rhythmic playing of a fiddle or fife.

As F.W Symondson writes in, Two Years Abaft The Mast (1876, Edinburgh):

Merchant Jack laughs with contempt as he watches their crew in uniform dress, walking around the windlass, weighing anchor like mechanical dummies. No hearty chanties here --- no fine chorus ringing with feeling and sentiment, brought out with a sort of despairing wildness, which so often strikes neighbouring landsfolk with deepest emotion

One form of music which both navy men and merchant seamen shared was the f'c's'le(forecastle) song or forebitter (named after the forebitts). Commonly, forecastle is often pronounced like it's common abbreviation fox-uhl (f'c's'le) and is an area near the bow of a ship where sailors often make their living quarters. This also came to the latter meaning as the phrase "before the mast" which denotes anything related to ordinary sailors (as opposed to a ship's officers). The forebitts is a construction of iron or timber near the foremast which many of the principal ropes run. Sailors assemble there in good weather during dog-watches and other free times to talk and exchange songs. In bad weather, the activity would take place in the f'c's'le. Hence, this set of songs became known as forebitters and F'c's'le songs.

As Dr. John Covel in 1670, (as published by the Hakluyt Society) observed:

we seldome fail of some merry fellows in every ship's crew who will entertain us with several diversions, as divers sorts of odde Sports and Gambols; sometimes with their homely drolls and Farses, which in their corrupt language they nickname Interlutes; sometimes they dance about the mainmast instead of a may-pole and they have a variety of forecastle songs, ridiculous enough.

Another account is observed by Richard Dana in Two Years Before The Mast(Harvard, 1909):
...and I shall never forget hearing an old salt, who had broken his voice by hard drinking on shore, and bellowing from the mast-head in a hundred north-westers, with all manner of ungovernable trills and quavers—in the high notes, breaking into a rough falsetto—and in the low ones, growling along like the dying away of the boatswain’s “all hands ahoy!” down the hatch-way, singing,

Oh, no, we never mention him. 
Perhaps, like me, he struggles with
Each feeling of regret;
But if he’s loved as I have loved,
 He never can forget!

The last line, being the conclusion, he roared out at the top of his voice, breaking each word up into half a dozen syllables. This was very popular, and Jack was called upon every night to give them his “sentimental song.” No one called for it more loudly than I, for the complete absurdity of the execution, and the sailors’ perfect satisfaction in it, were ludicrous beyond measure..."

Sometimes such songs were accompanied by other instruments, dance and merriment. The customs of French sailors have been well documented. Augustin Jal in his 'Scenes de la Vie Marltime' (1832) precisely describes rondes du bord (ring dances) and the use of instruments, and cites 12 songs: "With which the sailors amused themselves during leisure time on board, and which are quite out of place except between the bowsprit and the booms."  Mostly very ribald songs, and  he quotes only two in their entirety: Le Navire Merveilleux (The Wonderful Ship) andLes Dix Navires Charges de Ble (The Ten Ships Loaded With Wheat).(5)

The vitality of this popular tradition is equally well described in the works of Gabriel de la Landelle, an officer of the 'Royale' and a prolific writer.  He sprinkles his maritime novels with genre scenes, describing the rejoicings of the sailors, and he published several essays on ship's customs.  Notably in 1844, La Landelle produced an article on sailors' rondes (ring dances) where the words and music to several songs are set down.  Thus Le Navire Merveilleux, an evocation of an imaginary ship, goes thus:

La misaine est en dentelle
Les huniers en satin blanc
Les gabiets de la grands hune
Sont des filles de 18 ans ...


The fore-sail is of lace
The topsails in white satin
The topmen of the main-top
Are 18 year old girls ...

He describes the ring-dances thus:

The rondes, the real rondes of the foredeck, those are the popular songs.  They are not cooed in a husky voice, they are bellowed full-voiced, with all your lungs, they are repeated whilst dancing Breton style.  If one funloving individual gets up and takes five or six companions with him, the song will start, and you will see the circle get bigger and sometimes a second circle will form around the first.

Sometimes they go round in a circle, more often they only do 3 or 4 steps from right to left jumping in time at the point of the refrain.  I will never forget the circumstances in which I heard the ronde "Titi Lariti" for the first time.  We were returning from Brazil and approached the coast of France in the middle of winter.  The sailors were shivering; they had got together in a tight huddle walking along the gangway between the fore-mast and the main-mast: they were stamping in time, and in this way, close together, they were singing ...


Quand j'étais chez mon père,
Quand j'etais chez mon père,
Petite à la ti ti, la ri ti, tonton lariton
Petite à la maison.
On m'envoyait à l'herbe pour cueillir du cresson.
La rivière est profonde, je suis tombée au fond.


When I was at my father's house
When I was at my father's house
Petite a la ti ti la riti tonton lariton
Little one at home
They sent me to the green fields to cut some cress
The river is deep and I fell to the bottom.

These forbitter or f'c's'le songs and ballads often described the hard life on board the tall ships. They spoke of the good or bad properties of a ship or about the emotional links sailors had with the shore and those left behind.  Even the people on board the ship frequently appear in song. For example, the hated pervasive purser, captains and commanders could be detested or admired, and songs are sung about shipmates, some of which turned out to be female. Until about the early 1700's, ballads were quarto sheets in the old black-letter or gothic type. One of the major 17th century collections is that of Samuel Pepys, which contains over 1,600 sheets. Some of which, provide 16th century origins for songs sung at a much later period.

While the ballad and the shantey are indeed a little different, one is for work and one for entertaining, in the 20th century the term "shantey", is usually applied in the modern sense to include both types of songs.

The Etymology Of The Term "Shantey" / "Shanty" / "Chantey"

There is some historical confusion & debate about where the term sea "shantey" was derived. Some historians suggest that the songs were named from the French word “chanter” which means "to sing". Others argue that the songs name degenerated from the English word "chant". The English word chant means to make melodic sounds with the voice; especially: to sing a chant or to recite in a monotonous repetitive tone. Looking at the Etymology of the word: Middle English chaunten, from Middle French chanter, from Latin cantare, frequentative of canere to sing; akin to Old English hana rooster, Old Irish canid he sings intransitive senses, one might suggest that its origin is Irish or Latin!(7)

Here are some common dictionary definitions:

  • Merriam-Webster Paperback Dictionary (1997 5th Ed.) - Page 137 - "chan-tey or chanty \shan-te, chan-\
    n, pl chanteys or chanties : a song sung by sailors in rhythm with their work."
  • Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1927, Reprint 1953)  Page 1864 - "Shanty ... Also chant(e)y 1869 (perhaps a corruption of French chantez, imperative of chanter to sing.) A sailor's song, esp. one sung during heavy work"
  • The Columbia Encyclopedia (Columbia University Press, 1935)-"Chanteyor shanty, work song with marked rhythm, particularly one sung by a group of sailors while pulling ropes or pushing the capstan.... Similar songs are also sung by shore gangs and lumbermen..."
  • The American Heritage Dictionary Of The English Language (2000 4th Ed.) - "Chan-tey, or Chan-ty (shnt, chn. pl. chan·teys, also chan·ties A song sung by sailors to the rhythm of their movements while working. [Probably from French chantez, imperative pl. of chanterto sing, from Old French]"

Certainly the current term "Shanty" also spelled, Shantey - Chantey -  Chanty, is a modern one, which most historians agree was not used in English prior to about the 19th or 18th centuries. However, these types of songs were sung well back in history --- and were mostly commonly referred to as "songs and ditties".

The reference to sea-songs as "shanties" in the 18-19th Century may have occurred possibly for several reasons:

1. French "chantez" - either Norman French, Modern or 'Gumbo' dialect of New Orleans.

2. English "chant" or Old English "chaunt". See also 8.

3. The drinking Shanties of the Gulf ports (Mobile in particular) where black and white would congregate. Note that this is slightly less tenuous than 6. below, as, despite the non "musical" origin of the word, many coloured sailors went to sea from this area during the 19th Century and made reputations as singers of work songs.

4. Much the same as 3. - in Australia a "shanty" is a public-house, especially an unlicensed one (1864) and to shanty is to carouse or get drunk. Again, during the 19th Century, many seagoing shanteymen came from Australia and few people are likely to deny that drinking and singing (and sailors!) often go together.

5. Boat songs of the old French voyageurs of the New World, known as chansons (L.A. Smith, C.F. Smith)

6. The lumbermen's songs which often start with "Come all ye brave shanty-boys" a shantyman here being a lumberman or a backwoodsman.

7. West Indian Negroes used to move their shanties (huts built on stilts) by gangs pulling with a singing leader perched on the roof - he was the shanty man. (8)

8. A possible variation of the word "Chantry" --- Chantry -- A place where religious chant was conducted by early monks. Chantry is a term for the English establishment of a shrine or chapel on private land where monks or priests would say (or "chant") prayers on a fixed schedule. At sea, the forebitts, or f'cs'le would serve as the Chantry for sea going monks, and later the European sailors, many who were devout in their religions.

Despite the many plausible explanations of the origin of the word, it is most commonly theorized that in the 18th-19th century during the slave trade, the subsequent colonization of Africa; and through the development of "shanty" towns, that the term "Shanty" originally described the working songs of the African people living in "shanty" towns along the coast. It then became adapted by sailors and used to describe all songs at sea by the 19th century.

One of the first historical authorities on the subject, Captain W.B. Whall, wrote in his the first edition of Sea Songs and Shanties  (1910, Brown, Son and Ferguson, Glasgow):

As to the spelling of shanty, the earliest collection known to us, published about 1875, calls these ditties "Shanty Songs", meaning we suppose, songs from the shanties. Many of the early ones were certainly nigger; for example, "Way! Sing Sally", "Jamboree", "Let de bulgine run"; and though as a rule white men did not sing "nigger", still there were hundreds of coloured men in our ships, both naval and mercantile, and many of these songs came from the shanties, as the Negro huts on the Southern plantations were called. In any case why go to the French when we have the good old English word "chant?" There are many good French sea songs of this class, but they are not called "chanteys

No-matter the terminology, sea-songs, ballads, and working songs were an important part of seafaring life, and "shanties" as we know them today, existed well before the 14th Century. 

Sea-Songs/Shanty/Chanty Early Forms:

The Irish roots for this type of song can be traced back to at least about the 6th century, when Christian monks began to sail away from the shores of Ireland to remote island locations. Along they way, they would perform monastic chants while doing work, or in harried situations to pray to the divine order to carry them to safety. Saint Brendan the Abbott, was one of the most famous of these monks, reportedly to have reached North America long before either Columbus or the Vikings, and wrote a detailed account of his voyage in the Navigato Sancti Brendani Abbatis [The Voyage Of St. Brendan the Abbott] (D. O’Donoghue, Brendaniana, 1893), in this account there are several different references to the singing of hymns and chanting in a call and response style. This is noted very concisely in one passage in particular; whereupon the 3rd watch, St. Brendan & crew would sing in a call and response style:

...When supper was ended, and the divine office discharged, the man of God and his companions retired to rest until the third watch of the night, when he aroused them all from sleep, chanting the verse: ‘Thou, O Lord, wilt open my lips;’ whereupon all the birds, with voice and wing, warbled in response: ‘Praise the Lord, all His angels, praise Him all His virtues.’ Thus they sang for an hour every night; and when morning dawned, they chanted: ‘May the splendour of the Lord God be upon us,’ in the same melody and measures their matin praises of God. Again, at tierce, they sang the verse: ‘Sing to our God, sing; sing to our King, sing wisely;’ at sext: The Lord hath caused the light of His countenance to shine upon us, and may He have mercy on us;’ and at none they sang: ‘Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell in unity.’ Thus day and night those birds gave praise to God. St Brendan, seeing all this, made thanksgiving to the Lord for all His wonderful works; and the brethren were thus regaled with such spiritual viands until the octave of the Easter festival. [The monks and the birds here very explicitly engage in a 'call and response' manner of singing]

There is also mention of a "Sea-Roller's Song" composed by Heriulf Heriulfsson the son of Bard Heriulfsson, in The Voyages To Vinland [1000 A.D.] (Harvard, 1909), [the account of the discovery of North America by Leif Ericsson  contained in the “Saga of Eric the Red”; and the present translation made by A. M. Reeves from the version of the Saga in the Flateyar-bok, compiled by Jon Thordharson about 1387],

 Upon the ship with Heriulf was a Christian man from the Hebrides; he it was who composed the Sea-Roller’s Song, which contains this stave:

         “Mine adventure to the Meek One,
    Monk-heart-searcher, I commit now;
  He, who heaven’s halls doth govern,
    Hold the hawk’s-seat ever o’er me!”


From these early monastic roots, shanties in medieval Europe came to be used by sea-farers, mariners, and pilgrims alike --- as primarily songs sung while working the ship or to raise morale. 

As this early account written around 1480-1483, taken from The Book of Wanderings from Brother Felix Fabri (trans.Aubrey Stewart, M.A. Published London, 24, HANOVER SQUARE, 1896) describes:


They are in general very active young men, who are quite reckless of their lives, and are also bold and powerful in the galley like a baron's armed followers. Under these again there are others who are called mariners, who sing when work is going on, because work at sea is very heavy, and is only carried on by a concert between one who sings out orders and the labourers who sing in response. So these men stand by those who are at work, and sing to them, encourage them, and threaten to spur them on with blows. Great weights are dragged about by their means.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus' journal makes reference to an ancient hymn, Salve Regina, which was sung by the seaman in the fc's'le, "they said the 'Salve,' which all the sailors are used to say and sing in their fashion, the Admiral ordered them to look out well from the forecastle" (9)

Peter F. Copeland, in "The Sailors of Palos," in American History
Illustrated, Vol XXVII, Number 1
,  March/April 93, writes that according to Columbus' journal: " An apprentice carried
the binnacle lamp aft along the deck, singing "Amen and God give
us a good night and a good sailing.  May the ship make a good
passage, captain and master and good company."  Then the
apprentices led the sailors in prayer, chanting the Pater Noster,
the Ave Maria, and the Credo, after which all hands sang the
Salve Regina.  For the sailors these chanted rituals of the
church were comforting and expected, their only link to their
distant homeland"

Although a religious hymn, seafaring men doubtless came to favor it (Salve Regina) because it was so eminently singable. It came to be used as part of the ritual for the blessing of a ship, and the core of evening service on shipboard (10). In Samuel E. Morrison's Admiral of The Ocean Sea, he refers to it as an "ancient Spanish shanty" sung aboard Columbus's ships. There is considerable evidence that the hymn was popular as a song of exultant joy, a tribute more to its lilting melody than to its references to mourning, weeping and exile.

This hymn can also be traced to formulas taught on missionary journeys, especially in the Caribbean. It was popular at medieval universities as evening song, and was the frequent setting for devotions known as Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.Chantries were established in the medieval and Renaissance periods for the singing of the Salve, especially on Saturday evenings. [A chantry is an endowment or foundation for the chanting of masses and offering of prayers for particular persons or intentions.] Regardless of its historical origin, it was well known and established in France and Germany by the 12th century. It was definitely part of the liturgical prayer of many monasteries and part of the common prayer of many religious orders.(11)


Latin Text #1

English Text #1

Salve, Regina, mater misericordiae; 
vita, dulcedo et spes nostra, salve. 
Ad te clamamus, exsules filii Hevae. 
Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes 
in hac lacrimarum valle. 
Eia ergo, advocata nostra, 
illos tuos misericordes oculos ad nos converte. 
Et Iesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui, 
nobis post hoc exsilium ostende. 
O clemens, o pia, o dulcis Virgo Maria.
Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy, 
hail, our life, our sweetness, and our hope. 
To you we cry, the children of Eve; 
to you we send up our sighs, 
mourning and weeping in this land of exile. 
Turn, then, most gracious advocate, 
your eyes of mercy toward us; 
lead us home at last 
and show us the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus: 
O clement, O loving, O sweet virgin Mary.
Latin Variation #2 English Variation #2
Salve Regina coelitum O Maria
Sors unica terrigenum  O Maria
Jubilate Cherubim exsultate Seraphim
consonate perpetim
Salve Salve Salve Regina
Mater misericordiae O Maria
Dulcis paren clementiae O Maria
Tu vitae lux fons gratiae O Maria
Causa nostrae laetitiae O Maria
Hail Holy Queen enthron'd above, O Maria
Hail Mother of Mercy and of love  O Maria
Triumph all ye Cherubim Sing with us ye Seraphim Heav'n and earth resound the hymn 
Salve Salve Salve Regina
Our life our sweetness here below O Maria
Our hope in sorrow and in woe O Maria



Earliest Documented English Sea Shanty:

As far as the earliest documented existence of English sailors singing at work comes from a manuscript of the reign of the English king Henry VI (1421-71). This is a sea song, perhaps one of the oldest in Europe -- describing a ship loaded with pilgrims, bound from Sandwyche, Wynchelsee, and Bristow (Bristol) toward the shrine of St. James (Santiago) in Compostella Spain (12). Those who are interested will find it in J.O Haliwell's Early Naval Ballads of England (1841) which is generally considered to be the first anthology of such ballads and shanties and sits in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge: 

Anon the master commandeth fast
   To his ship-men in all the hast[e],
   To dresse them [line up] soon about the mast
         Their takeling to make.

   With _Howe! Hissa!_ then they cry,
   'What howe! mate thou standest too nigh,
   Thy fellow may not haul thee by:'
         Thus they begin to crake [shout].

   A boy or twain anon up-steyn [go aloft]
   And overthwart the sayle-yerde leyn [lie]
   _Y-how! taylia!_ the remnant cryen [cry]
         And pull with all their might.

   Bestow the boat, boat-swain, anon,
   That our pylgrymms may play thereon;
   For some are like to cough and groan
         Ere it be full midnight.

   Haul the bowline! Now veer the sheet;
   Cook, make ready anon our meat!
   Our pylgrymms have no lust to eat:
         I pray God give them rest.

   Go to the helm! What ho! no neare[r]!
   Steward, fellow! a pot of beer!
   Ye shall have, Sir, with good cheer,
         Anon all of the best.

   _Y-howe! Trussa!_ Haul in the brailes!
   Thou haulest not! By God, thou failes[t]
   O see how well our good ship sails!
         And thus they say among.

          *       *       *       *       *

   Thys meane'whyle the pylgrymms lie,
   And have their bowls all fast them by,
   And cry after hot malvesy--
         'Their health for to restore.'

          *       *       *       *       *
   Some lay their bookys on their knee,
   And read so long they cannot see.
   'Alas! mine head will split in three!'
         Thus sayeth one poor wight.

          *       *       *       *       *

   A sack of straw were there right good;
   For some must lay them in their hood:
   I had as lief be in the wood,
         Without or meat or drink!

   For when that we shall go to bed,
   The pump is nigh our beddes head:
   A man he were as good be dead
       As smell thereof the stynke!

         *       *       *       *       *
Howe--hissa! - is still used aboard deepwater-men as Ho--hissa! instead of  Ho--hoist away! What ho, mate!- is also known afloat, though dying out.  Y-howe! taylia! - is Yo--ho! tally!  or Tally and belay! - which means hauling aft and making fast the sheet of a mainsailor foresail. What ho! no nearer!- is What ho! no higher  now. But old salts remember no nearer! and it may be still extant. Seasickness
seems to have been the same as ever--so was the desperate effort to
pretend one was not really feeling it:

   And cry after hot malvesy--
     'Their health for to restore.'
[Notes From: Elizabethan Sea Dogs By William Wood (1918:Yale)]

Sea Shanties/Songs In The 16th - 18th Centuries:

Little is precisely known about what the mariners of this time sang at sea. There are many broadsheets written by landsmen as a tribute to the sea, and as many written by sailors themselves. However, many of the sheets quote tunes long since forgotten, or simply mention they are sung to a "pleasant new tune". Fortunately, many of these early tunes re-surface at later dates, and this may give us an inkling of how they were sung at sea originally.  For example, Martin Parkers Ballad (1635), "Sailors for my Money", reappeared about a decade later when it was published as "Neptune's Raging Fury" (1645). In 1800, it was adapted for singing in the parlour and concert hall by Thomas Campbell, and was known as, "Ye Mariners Of England," but also continued to circulate in something approaching its original form as "When stormy winds do blow". In addition, it served as a pattern for many other songs. Sailors treated texts with great freedom, adapting, improvising, moving lines and whole verses from one song to another, and they were similarly free with tunes. For example "Blow The Man Down", one of the best known shanties in modern memory, swallowed the words of a dozen other songs and took over several other tunes. Shanties came to embrace all of the pre-occupations of the sailor, from heroic battles, life on board, emotion, and the conditions of the sea itself.  There is a good deal of evidence from memoirs and manuscripts that sailors aboard ship wrote ballads and shanties to suit their needs, as it was the easiest thing in the world to do(13).

Generally, the culture of the sea was one passed by word-of-mouth, not to be written down to sit in a dusty anthology that reeks of a stale museum. This sentiment is quite  clearly expressed in an account by Richard Dana, in Two Years Before The Mast(Harvard, 1909):

Among her crew were two English man-of-war’s-men, so that, of course, we soon had music. They sang in the true sailor’s style, and the rest of the crew, which was a remarkably musical one, joined in the choruses. They had many of the latest sailor songs, which had not yet got about among our merchantmen, and which they were very choice of. They began soon after we came on board, and kept it up until after two bells, when the second mate came forward and called “the Alerts away!” Battle-songs, drinking-songs, boat-songs, love-songs, and everything else, they seemed to have a complete assortment of, and I was glad to find that “All in the Downs,” “Poor Tom Bowline,” “The Bay of Biscay,” “List, ye Landsmen!” and all those classical songs of the sea, still held their places. In addition to these, they had picked up at the theatres and other places a few songs of a little more genteel cast, which they were very proud of;

The great songs of the sea, like the tall ships, were to slowly disappear with the appearance of the steamships. As Capt. Whall frankly states in Ships, Sea Songs, and Shanties(1910)"...the romance of the sea is gone, and with it are gone sea songs...remains of them there are, it is true, but the character has all gone out of them". They have become somewhat like fossils, as we can study them, examine their parts, structures and rythms and imply what they may have be used for, and how they were sung; but alas, "the words of a song without music are very like dry bones" (14). As Captain Downie, once wrote in 1860, "there are very few men now living who can recollect the words of any of these old songs, for they have been supplanted by music-hall ditties and songs out of comic opera" (15). Therefore, like a palentolgist, to find the colour and culture of these early songs we must look to their ancestors, for which some have a direct lineage. Fortunately, a host of modern day writers have helped to chisel away at these old relics including: Stan Hugill, C.H. Firth, W.B. Wahll, John Masefield, Richard Dana, and Joseph Conrad.

Understanding the "culture of the sea" in this time period is also complicated further in that pioneers in the study of sea-songs and ballads often dismiss some street ballads as being charlatans. These are often highly acclaimed by other writers as being genuine sea-songs. Stan Hugill writes in Songs Of The Sea (1977, McGraw hill):

There do exist many dusty tomes in world libraries containing collections of so-called seasongs, mainly without airs, but most of these were composed by broadside-ballad makers on shore. There is a tendecy in modern folkclubs to dig out the better of these "poems" for that is what thet are -- and adorn them with tunes from other folksongs, but this does not give us a song as it was actually mouthed by wine-bibbing sea-coneys

It is sometimes difficult to distinguish that which was actually sung at sea on a ship, and that which was simply the product of a landsmans imagination. It was often thought, that a sailors authorship of such a ballad somehow increased the sales. In the 19th Century, ballad sellers would assume the dress of sailors to help with the sale of their so called "sea ballads". They were known as "turnpike sailors", and generally were despised by sailors and commanders alike. To complicate matters further, naval victories and news was often proclaimed and made public through the use of ballads. Most ballads were cheaper (about 1/2p. in 1588) than newspapers (about 1p) and more accessible to those with a low level of reading skills:

No Battle was fought, no vessel taken or sunken, that the triumph was not published, proclaimed in the national gazette of our ballad singer...It was he who bellowed music into news, whcih, made to jingle, was thus even to the weakest understanding rendered portable. It was his narrow strips of history that adorned the garrets of the poor; it was he who made them yearn towards their country, albeit to them so rough and niggard a mother. (16)

Another problem is that words of shanties were subordinate to the task at hand; as soon as it was completed the song ceased, at whatever the point the singer had reached. It would never be sung after the work was finished on ship or on shore, unless it was one of those songs which doubled as shanty and forebitter (17).  Richard Dana comments in Two Years Before The Mast (1909, Harvard):

A song is as necessary to sailors as the drum and fife to a soldier. They can’t pull in time, or pull with a will, without it. Many a time, when a thing goes heavy, with one fellow yo-ho-ing, a lively song, like “Heave, to the girls!” “Nancy oh!” “Jack Crosstree,” etc., has put life and strength into every arm. We often found a great difference in the effect of the different songs in driving in the hides.

Also, apart from the difference of function between work and recreation, the shanties were often obscene. As such, few texts have been published, since either a sailor censored himself when singing in public, or the collecter/ broadsheet publisher edited his text before printing it. Some of the bawdiest shanties were collected by Percy Grainger, and is discussed at length in M.Yates, "The Best Bar of The Capstan: William Bolton, Sailor and Shantyman" and by V. Gammon in the article, "Song, Sex, and Society in England", 1600-1850"

However, there are frequent references, and written compilations to sailors' recreational songs.  Of what Christopher Stone, Capt. Whall, Stan Hugill and would call "the old and true sea songs":

...Christopher Stone Remarked: "Occasionally there was real poetry in them, but it was poetry of thought or idea, not of the phraseology." Yet there is a great deal of skill in such songs. Their art is public rather than private, and despite the role of print in dissemination, it is intended to be heard rather than read... (18)

There exists no doubt that music was played aboard the Elizabethan ships while at sea. For example, in 1567, Hawkins during his second voyage across the Atlantic insisted "...on setting a good table, with fine linen and silver, and dishes cooked to his liking. A group of five to six musicians on board the Jesus of Lubeck played fiddle music for the enjoyment of the captain and crew." (19). The group was lead by a shantyman known as  "a tiny youth named William Low, twenty years old, though he looked like a freckle-faced boy" (20)

Sir Edward Hayes, the rear-admiral to Humphrey Gilbert , and commander and owner of the Golden Hinde,  records in Sir Humphrey Gilbert's Voyage To Newfoundland (1583):  "We were in number in all about 260 men; among whom we had of every faculty good choice ... for solace of our people, and allurement of the savages, we were provided of music in good variety...The evening was fair and pleasant, yet not without token of storm to ensue, and most part of this Wednesday night, like the swan that singeth before her death, they in the Admiral, or Delight, continued in sounding of trumpets, with drums and fifes; also winding the cornets and hautboys, and in the end of their jollity, left with the battle and ringing of doleful knells." [Ironically, in this revelry, the watch failed to sight the land ahead the next day, and the Delight being a "very heavy burthen of 120 tons" foundered off the coast of Newfoundland on the shores of Sable Island]

Likewise, in Luiz De Camoens epic, Lusiadas(1572), he tells us it was the custom aboard the ships of Vasco da Gama's fleet, en route to India for the sailors to "sing songs and catches to lighten their work," when raising anchors and making sail" (21)

Captain Forrest, in A Voyage to New Guinea (1775), writes that "the Moors in what is called country ships in East India, have also their cheering songs at work in hoisting, or in their boats a rowing"(22)

Richard Hakluyt in the Voyager's Tales (1582), writes: 
"These ships, in token of the joy on all partsconceived for their happy meeting, spared not the discharging of their ordinance, the sounding of drums and trumpets, the spreading of ensigns,with other warlike and joyful behaviours,expressing by these outward signs the inward gladness of their in sporting manner they made mirth and pastime among themselves."

Further evidence of sea-songs, ditties, and tunes in the 16th Century is also described in Walter Bigges, Drake's Great Armada (1584), "forthwith came a Frenchman, [Nicolas Borgoignon] being a fifer (who had been prisoner with them) in a little boat, playing on his fife the tune of the Prince of Orange his song."
[The 'Prince of Orange's Song' was a popular ditty in praise of
William Prince of Orange (assassinated 1584), the leader of the Dutch
Protestant insurgents. In 1569, William I, the Silent, prince of Oranje, who was one of the principal noblemen of the region, led a revolt. Initially unsuccessful, he chartered the ”Gueux de la mer ” which in english means, “The Beggars of the Sea”, to harrass Spanish shipping.]

Below is the chorus (stave) of a 15th Century "sea shanty" as quoted by Charles Kightly in The Customs & Ceremonies of Britain, Thames & Hudson, 1986). The rest of the song is lost. The choruses of some ancient songs have a boatman (named Norman in one such) rowing to Rumbylowe, so it seems it was an island perhaps near Britain.:

Haile and Howe, Rumbylowe
Steer well the good ship and let the wind

On the board the Pinta, Spanish Sailors in 1492 were not only known to sing f'c's'le songs, but also dance around the mainmast (similar to the French ronde dance):

"Singing was another popular recreation for sailors far from
home.  We are told that after sighting the islands of the New
World, the crew of the Pinta sang and danced around the mainmast
to the accompaniment of pipes and a tambourine
." (22)

In 1534, two small French sailing vessels, commanded by a Breton,  Jacques Cartier,  began exploring the Newfoundland coast. Along with these French voyageurs, came the "boat songs" and music known as chansons which became a staple for both entertainment and daily work in New France, and some would say is the source for the modern chantey.

Thomas Moore, in a A Canadian Boat song, writes:

Faintly as the tolls the evening chime,
Our voices keep tune and our oars keep time,
Soon as the woods on shore look dim,
We'll sing at St. Ann's our parting hymn.
Row, brothers, row, the stream runs fast,
The rapids are near and the daylight past.

In a note as quoted in Canadian Folk Songs (1927), he further explains how he came to write to words of this popular Canadian folk-song:

I wrote these words to an aire which our boatmen sang to us frequently. The wind was so unfavourable that they were obliged to row us all the way, and we were five days descending the river from Kingston to Monteal... Our voyageurs had good voices, and sang perfectly in tune together. The original words of the air, to which I adapted these stanzas, begin:

Dans mon chemin j'ai recontre
Deux cavaliers tres bien montes.

And the refrain to every verse was:

A l'ombre d'un bois je m'en vais jouer,
A l'ombre d'un bois je m'en vais danser.

I ventured to harmonize this air and have published it ... I have heard this simple air with a pleasure which the finest compositions of the first masters have never given me.

Thomas Moore wrote this in 1804, but the French verses according to J. Murray Gibbon, in Canadian Folk Songs,  indicate a much greater antiquity. Dans mon chemin j'ai recontre will be found in Ernest Gagnon's Chansons Populaires du Canada under the title of J'ao trop gran'peur des loups (I am too afraid of wolves).

While the refrain and tune in the ballad quoted by Gagnon differs slightly from those heard by Thomas Moore, in these folk-songs, tunes and words are readily interchanged, very much like sea chanteys. So that, the song may itself may be applied to conditions very different from those known to the original poet or composer. Furthermore, the fact that words heard by Moore in Canada are still sung in Poitou, France confirms that the song was not native to Canada but was brought by the early settlers and handed down from generation to generation. The French settlement in Canada ceased early in the eighteenth century, so that the imported chansons, of which several thousand have been colleced, may in most cases be dated no later than the seventeenth century. (23)

According to Stan Hugill, in Songs Of The Sea (1977, McGraw hill), the earliest work giving a series of work songs (without tunes) at sea is The Complaynt Of Scotland (1549) By Barbour. Hugill says that "two anchor songs are given, one bowline shanty and three hauling songs for hoisting the lower yard."

It is true that the origins of the melodies and lyrics are also subject to varied ancestry. It is said that many are based on the hauling cries of Elizabethan seamen. Others are based on Anglo-Irish folk ballads, West Indian folk songs, Civil war marching songs, Afrikaans war songs, poems, popular songs (Sacramento, based on Stephen Foster's Camptown Races) and riverboat songs. Sea soungs & shanties are classified according to the type of work that they accompanied. The types include: hauling songs which include halyard, short haul and hand over hand shanties, heaving songs that include capstan, pumping and anchor raising. Which category a shanty belongs to is often disputed. The tempo of each song can vary greatly and the text alone does not always determine type although in some cases it provides strong likelihood.

The basic shanties/sea-song types:

  • Short Drag Shanty
    Short drag or short haul shanties were for tasks that required quick pulls over a relatively short period of time, such as for work like shortening or unfurling sails.
  • Long Drag Shanty
    Long drag or halyard shanties were for work that required more time between pulls. They were sung when for heavy labour that went on for a long time. Perhaps work like raising or lowering a heavy sail. This type of shanty gave the sailors a rest in between the hauls. This type of shanty usually has a chorus at the end of each line.
  • Capstan Shanty
    Capstan (or windlass) shanties were used for long or repetitive tasks that needed a sustained rhythm. Raising or lowering the anchor by winding up the heavy anchor chain was their prime use. These are the most developed of the work shanties.
  • Forecastle Shanties/Ballads
    These songs came were about places visited, reminding the sailors of home or foreign lands. Sailors enjoyed singing songs of love, adventure, pathos, famous men, and battles.
  • Whaling Shanties
    Life on a whaler was more dangerous than on any other ship. The length of time at sea typically lasted from two to three years. It is no wonder that whalers had their own array of sea shanties. Songs helped give these men the will to go on in the face of their dreadful circumstances.

Bibliographical Notes:

  1. Masefield, John. "Sea Songs" as quoted in The Temple Bar (1906) ed. Arthur Ransome
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Woodfill, Walter. Musician's In English Society (New York:1969)
  5. Colleu, Michael. "The Songs Of French Sailors" as printed in Musical Traditions No. 9, Autmn 1991. Trans. Janet Russell & Paul Wright.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Hale, Everett. The Life Of Christopher Columbus from his own letter and journals and other documents of his time.(1892: Chicago)
  9. Kris Sommers, "Salve Regina: Marian Antiphon for Ordinary Time" [Easter To Advent]."  (2003: The Marian Library/International Marian Research Insitute)
  10. Ibid.
  11. Hugill, Stan. Songs Of The Sea (1977:McGraw Hill).
  12. Palmer, Roy. The Oxford Book Of Sea Songs (1986: Oxford)
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Kelsey, Harry.  Sir Francis Drake: The Queen's Pirate.(1998:London)
  18. Ibid.
  19. Hugill, Stan. Songs Of the Sea(1977:McGraw Hill)
  20. Ibid.
  21. Hale, Everett. The Life Of Christopher Columbus from his own letter and journals and other documents of his time.(1892: Chicago)
  22. Gibbon, Murray. Canadian Folk Songs (Old and New), (London:1927)