What are Sea Shanties?

15 March 2021 By Shamseer Mambra

Antonio Jacobsen   The American Clipper Ship Flying Cloud At Sea Under Full Sail

​Long before the arrival of Radio, Television and other technological marvels as a medium of entertainment, it was those folk songs and other traditional art forms that kept us delighted.

Such traditional art forms were developed according to local cultures in another particular environment. Mostly, these songs and stories were existed and practiced within specific communities who share something in common such as ethnicity, region, religion, or occupation.

In particular, a large number of such folk songs were created as a means of entertainment during work hours.

These songs, commonly known as work songs, were used to coordinate people working together and also improve the efficiency of the job.

Additionally, these songs helped workers to relieve the boredom of a tedious job.

What Is a Sea Shanty?

Sailors who lived before the era of digital entertainments also developed work songs which helped them to work smoothly abroad the vessels throughout the months-long journeys.

Sea Shanties are similar work songs that were created and used by sailors on the square-rigged ships of the Age of Sail, a period (16th to the mid-19th century) in which international trade and warfare were dominated by the sailing ships. The usage of a sea shanty is believed to have started as a way of combating the monotonous nature of the arduous marine requirements.

These were the songs sung by seafarers to give their mundane chores a semblance of pleasure and merriment. Though, contrary to people’s interpretation, these songs were used only when the seafarers were working or in the process of fulfilling certain prescribed tasks, instead of being used as a tool for whiling away time aboard a vessel.

Here is an example of a Sea Shanty appeared in the movie Moby Dick:

Shantyman: Our boots and clothes are all in pawn

Sailors: Go (pull) down ye blood red roses, go(pull) down.

Origin of Sea Shanty

The origin of the word shanty still remains unknown despite the existence of a number of inconclusive theories. According to the consistently offered claim, the etymological origin of the shanty is from the French word Chanter, which means “to sing.”

It is believed that the word shanty was introduced in the mid-19th century to denote a distinct genre of work song, which was developed especially in American-style merchant vessels. However, while the evolution of chanter to shanty is accepted widely across the world, in the then-modern American marine lingo, the term chanter was transformed to “chantey,” as a way of separating contextual connections with the British jargon.

Types and Usage of Sea Shanties

Among other work songs, the shanty genre remains distinct due to its formal characteristics and the specific manner of use, among others. Typically, a shanty was performed in a call-and-response format, in which one sailor would call out a verse, prompting other sailors to respond in unison. Within these two parts, knows as the chant and the chorus, a shantyman would start the lyrics establishing the beat only to let the chorus join in. The songs were divided into several categories according to the group of labourers they belonged to. In general, the shanties are divided into three categories: the long haul, short-haul and Capstan shanties.

The long-haul shanties, also known as halyard shanties were sung during heavy jobs carried out for a long time. Mostly, the halyard shanties are used to coordinate hauling and often used to set sails. For this type of shanty, a chorus comes at the end of each line.

This helps the sailors coordinate themselves by taking a deep breath and getting a fresh grip in between pulls. ‘Blow the Man Down’ is one of the popular long-haul shanties.

The short-haul or short drag shanties were used for tasks that need quick pulls over a relatively short time. Sung during the unfurling or shortening sail, these songs feature steady rhythm, helping the sailors work at the same pace to get the job done safely and efficiently.

‘Paddy Doyle’s Boots’, is one of the short-haul shanties and it was specifically used for furling the sails. Sailors used the Capstan or the Windlass shanties for long repetitive tasks that required a sustained rhythm.

The song was used when the crew around the capstan to raise and lower heavy sails or the ship’s anchors. ‘Drunken Sailor’ is perhaps one of the most famous capstan shanties known to the public.

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In addition to these, there were also songs known as Pumping shanties, which were practiced when battling with leaks in the wooden ships. As the old wooden sailing ships slightly leak naturally, it was grueling work for the seamen to drain out the water in the bilge of the vessel. Similarly, the whaling shanties denote the difficulties of working aboard a whaling ship.

Sailors abroad whaling ships, which undertake months-long journeys, face worst and life-threatening circumstances. It was these whaling shanties that gave them the strength to overcome and survive the harshness and dangers. As mentioned earlier, the sea shanties’ rhythms helped sailors coordinate the efforts abroad the vessel. Thus, the focus of these working songs was on the rhythm and beat, allowing every sailor to sing and be part of the group.

Similarly, it wasn’t expected of the seafarers to possess really great singing skills, as the sole purpose of these songs was to maintain a unique line of command which would help the seafarers carry out their work in a more orderly manner. Likewise, the melody and the lyrics of every song used to be impromptu conjuring instead of a planned and detailed composition.