I have had this topic as one of 21 ideas in my draft folder for some time and the plan was to release it for International Talk Like a Pirate Day Sept 19, 2020, but I never got around to writing it. I thought about getting to it after I saw the movie about the singing group Fisherman’s Friends as well. Now, sea shanties are making news thanks to Nathan Evans and Tik Tok, Youtube and other social media, so it’s time to jump on the bandwagon!
I have mentioned before I have a friend of Irish descent, and the classic Irish drinking songs are closely related to (if not a few of them considered) sea shanties themselves. Add to this that I’m half Newfoundlander on my mother’s side, also – my close friend from a Haven Port in the UK so I’m somewhat familiar with the genre.
What is a Sea Shanty?
The simple answer is “What Will You Do With a Drunken Sailor?” But there is an interesting history to the songs that have endured the test of time. I gave an example of one in my post on The Beatles Cover Songs. Here is a clip of Paul McCartney from “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” singing a snippet of the song “Maggie Mae”, a folk song/shanty of sorts from at least the mid-1800s. It was first recorded in 1905 as “Good-Bye Maggie May” by J.W. Myers. The Quarrymen made a version of this song part of their repertoire and in 1969, “Maggie Mae” was recorded by The Beatles. I also touched on this topic in my Happy St. Patricks Day post.
The origins of the shanty have been traced to sailors’ work songs on the merchant ships that traveled the world trading food, raw materials, cloth and other goods. The idea behind the specific cadence of the songs was to provide a rhythm to the work being done aboard ship. It provided a certain efficiency and helped pass the time. It was a common practice among fishing boats as well when hauling nets and ropes. There is a great song about the hard life of the merchant sailor called “Barrett’s Privateers” (Stan Rogers) where the poor fictional antagonist cries out “Now I’m a broken man on a Halifax pier, the last of Barrett’s Privateers”. This shanty singing practice was banned aboard military vessels for fear of interfering with the need to shout and pass along commands.
A Brief History of Sea Shanties
The songs have roots in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This is where the traditions of the songs are best kept, as in the example of the Fishermans Friends who hail from Port Isaac, a small Atlantic coast fishing village north Cornwall, England. There are also African work songs as well as Caribbean sailor and stevedore contributions in these songs. All these influences met on the American Merchant Ships prominently beginning around the 1830s. It was very common for these ships to have a musician, typically a Black slave(s) or later a Black labourer playing a fiddle but more likely a fife or another pipe instrument to keep the pace. These ships would have sailors from all around the world, many bringing their own musical influence. Ships would also employ the official use of a Shantyman who would provide the main vocals and lead the other sailors and workers in song a cappella.
The proliferation of the steamship in the 1870s reduced the need for much of the hard labour, not to mention the noise of the new ships spelled the end of the heyday of the sea shanty. It was for the most part relegated to folklore. However, in the early 1900s, thanks to writers such as Cecil Sharp and others of the English Folk Song Society, the shanties, as well as other traditional Folk Songs from around the world were written down. Credit is due to the preservation effort of many folklorists and musicologist in the US as well where it was written as sheet music and in some cases live recordings were made of these songs. As mentioned, the shanty traditions had been carried on in some fishing villages, primarily in the United Kingdom but also in other coastal regions and at a number of Maritime music festivals. There is perhaps a thin line between the Shanty and Irish/Scottish/Newfoundland and other regional folk songs such as The Dubliners with Whiskey in the Jar. These folks songs can be about soldiering and wars, politics, people and relationships, they do not have the same structure as a Shanty. So the former (Shanty) is the typical work or call and response song. I read a very nice thesis by Sharon Marie Risko (1999) that explains there were different songs for the types of work done aboard ship. Some songs were shorter than others or had an up or downbeat tempo, depending on the chore at hand, not to mention the weariness of the crew.
The best collection of songs is credited to the British merchant seaman and historian, Stan Hugill, who was born on November 19, 1906, and died May 13, 1992. This brilliant man spoke many languages and served as a Japanese translator, sailor, shantyman, German prisoner of WWII, recording artist, broadcaster and, after being laid up with a broken leg, he authored several books on sea shanties. Shanties from the Seven Seas (1961) is one of his books and it contains 400 different songs.
Here, in no particular order are some Sea Shanties, enjoy!
The pride of Newfoundland, Great Big Sea “General Taylor“
The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem, “Paddy Doyle’s Boots“
Ewan MacColl & A.L.Lloyd, “Blow Boys Blow“
The Yarmouth Shantymen, “Cape Cod Girls” also know as “Codfish Shanty”
Coda singing “Leave Her, Johnny, Leave Her“
The Dogwatch Nautical Band, “Ranzo Ray / Cheerly Man“
The Grubby Urchins, “Way Me Susiana“
The Longest Johns “Wellerman“
The Dreadnoughts with “Randy Dandy-Oh“, sorry couldn’t resist!
The finale from the Deal (UK) Maritime Festival on 22nd September 2013. The whole crew led by John Bromley of Kimber’s Men, “Bully in the Alley“
The Johnson Girls at the famed Mystic (Connecticut) Sea Music Festival in 2017.
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Edited by Richelle Dafoe