Sea shanties are maritime work songs, designed for synchronising manual exertion upon ships.
All and sundry are encouraged to join in the tuneful bellowing and melodious caterwauling. With short refrains and intuitive melodies you don’t need to be rounding The Horn to inspire the sailor within.
Check out the website or our Instagram account each Wednesday, for a new video for you to sing along with. High morale and rambunctious good cheer are known side effects.
Bully In The Alley
A capstan shanty
This rousing short-haul or capstan shanty was reported by a Cpt. Tayleur to have been sung with a spirit by sailors en route to Melbourne’s Port as they ‘hove in their mooring lines’, back in the days when our streets were erupting with golden nuggets. ‘Bully’ is nineteenth century colloquialism meaning ‘great’ (implying that the singer is having a great time), but whether the Shinbone Alley referred to is the leg-shaped patch of trees near Echuca known by this name or some sordid red-light district lane in New York is anyone's guess.
A long haul shanty
Long haul, or long drag shanties were used where a concentrated effort was required to coordinate heavy labour, ie., the furling of the heaviest sails. Stan Hugill notes that this shanty’s refrains are barely evolved beyond a simple ‘call-out’, with short stanzas and short calls making it suitable for heavy work at the end of a long task, such as the ‘catting’ (or stowing) of an anchor as it came out of the water. It is more typical for long-haul shanties to be characterised by long stanzas and short refrains in order to give sailors an opportunity to rest on their laurels between pulls. A good shantyman would improvise stanzas to adapt to the length of the task at hand.
Strike The Bell
A pumping shanty
Striking the bell refers to the changing of the watch, or the ending of one’s shift. This shanty shares a melody with the legendary Australian song ‘Click Go The Shears’, although both are nineteenth century parodies of the American Civil War era song ‘Ring the Bell Watchmen’, attributed to H.C. Work, which may in turn be borrowed from an earlier Welsh Song, ‘Twll Bach y Clo’. It was very common for commercially written songs, picked up in minstrel halls during the halcyon days of shore-leave, to be adapted for work at sea. Sailors would sing these with a will, and here the steady, animated melody is as well suited to livening up the monotonous rhythm of pumping as to that of shearing.
A riverboat shanty
Many ethnomusicologists have written about this shanty, mostly conflicting things. The eponymous subject may refer to an Oneida tribal chief, or Virginian river, two theories supported by verses collected in differing versions. Some versions omit this name entirely, supplanting the name with that of ‘Sally Brown’, Paddy Doyle or even Dan O’Shea. Likewise the singing of ‘wide’ or ‘wild’ Missouri may change the reference to the Missouri river or state, respectively. Such discrepancies are common in shanties used in the riverboat trade, which were typically adapted by local crews to retain relevance. Conversely, international crews and standardised routes on deep-water voyages made such specificity less critical.
Pique La Baleine
A whaling shanty
Shanties were sung by all seagoing nations, in all manner of foreign tongues. These French lyrics seem a little on the sentimental side, with a refrain of ‘oh my lads, ooh-la-la’. Choruses translate as ‘stick the whale, I’ll steer’. If the singer has the luxury of being seated, this shanty is paired particularly well with Québécois-style podorythmie (‘foot-percussion’).
That's it for our weekly shanty series! We hope you enjoyed singing along - let us know if you'd like some more!
- Hugill, S. 1969, Shanties and Sailors’ Songs, Herbert Jenkins, London.
- Hugill, S. 1984. Shanties from the seven seas: shipboard work-songs and songs used as work-songs from the great days of sail, Routledge, London
- Doerflinger, W. 1972, Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman, Macmillan and Co., New York