As long as there have been sailors, those sailors have been singing shanties and sea songs. Crews on merchant vessels used shanties to help them coordinate the often complex but highly repetitive tasks on board ship.
It’s almost certain that many cultures throughout history have used chants and songs to help them work together, but the songs we think of as shanties emerged in the 19th Century aboard British and American merchant ships. These ‘Packet Ships’ carried passengers and cargo to fixed schedules and were operated by a smaller crew than the vessels that had gone before them. From raising the anchor to changing the direction of the sails, shanties were specialised to certain tasks – with a correct rhythm or pattern of call and response to keep the crew in time. Because of their functional purpose shanties prioritise rhythm, often at the expense of lyrics, or even tunefulness- imagine hauling a rope in a howling gale and trying to hit the right note!
Singing aboard ship was led by the Shantyman, in all other respects a regular crew member, who was responsible for leading shanty singing. All shanties have strong choruses that the whole crew could join together on, but often the more complex verses were sung by the Shantyman. In common with earlier work songs some shanties follow a ‘call and response’ pattern where the crew would sing in unison in answer to a prompt from the Shantyman. Shanties are often flexible in length, and verses can be improvised or removed to fit the length of the task in hand.
Shanties can be classified by whether they’re designed for ‘Hauling’ (pulling) or ‘Heaving’ (pushing). The former are highly rhythmic, keeping the crew together so they can all pull in time. The latter focus more on pace to ensure consistent motion in heaving tasks.
Sailors are famously suspicious and shanties are no exception. Songs like ‘Homeward Bound’ were only sung on the homeward leg, and songs extolling the joys of the voyage ahead only on the outbound journey. Some songs even fitted specific moments; sailors were paid a portion of their pay in advance – the ideas was that they could buy the necessary supplies for the voyage before they set sail (although often it was spent enjoying their last few hours on land…). The Song ‘Poor Old Horse’ was only sung to mark the day that sailors began to earn their pay again, having worked off the advance. Similarly ‘Leave her, Johnny leave her’ could only accompany the last tasks completed once the ship was docked. One sailing superstition even made it into theatres. Perhaps you’ve heard that it’s unlucky to whistle backstage? Some people say this is because the flys and scenery ropes were operated by out of the work sailors, who communicated with each other by whistling. If you were to walk underneath them whistling perhaps they would mistake that for the signal to drop a particularly heavy piece of set right on top of you!
When steam ships started to be introduced at the end of the 19th Century lots of the tasks that had been carried out by hand became automated and shanties weren’t needed aboard ship any more. Luckily for us in the middle of the 20th Century people like Cecil Sharp and Stan Hugill travelled the country and collected the tunes and lyrics of shanties and sea songs. Today there are groups up and down the UK keeping the shanty tradition alive; from the classic Cornish songs sung by The Fisherman’s Friends, to the London-based City Shanty band who perform their own modern spin on shanties, and Kings of The South Seas’ take on the darker whaling song tradition, even today you’re never far away from a song to get the salt coursing through your veins. Have a listen to some of these shanty bands and see if you can work out what tasks they may have been designed for.
The Fishermen’s Friends – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wmE87g9li5c
Kings of The South Seas’ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iC7qWqSEoGE
– Charlie Morley