Sea Shanties

Sea Shanties were basically the work songs that were used during the time of the great sailing ships. The Golden Age of the shanties was in the mid-nineteenth century. Their rhythms coordinated the efforts of many sailors hauling on lines. They are rarely used as work songs today. Now they are mainly used by singing groups. In Lord Nelson's Navy shanties were banned, and the work was accompanied instead by calling out numbers or the rhythmic playing of a fiddle or fife. The word shanty or chanty may be derived from the French word chanter which means to sing.

They were not originally in the musical form we find them today, but chanted, with emphasis on a syllable or word as sailors performed their work. The chanter or shantyman calling out words and the men calling out the chorus in rhythm to their work. The words of the chorus usually coincided with a heave, or pull. Just like a good drill sergeant today can make a march more bearable with the proper use of a song. So to could the shantyman aboard ship help to lighten the effort and ease the boredom of repetitive work. Shanties developed separate rhythms for the various chores at sea such as for raising the anchor, hauling ropes, etc.

Shanties could also help provide a way for sailors to express themselves without much fear of punishment. Basically, there are two kinds of shanties. First are the work shanties: the short drag, short haul, halyard, windlass, or capstan. Second are the forecastle or fo'castle shanties. These generally are the ballads or tell of some historical event. They get there name from the part of the ship where the singing usually took place: the forecastle, which was the crew's quarters.

The ballads typically describe the hardships of life aboard the tallships, about the harsh treatment by their superiors, the good or bad properties of the ship or about the sailors ties with the shore. Some of these ballads started out as working songs by landlubbers like woodcutters, railway and farm workers, blacksmiths, and golddiggers. Still others were sung by slaves loading and unloading cargo. When steam and diesel powered ships entered service and began to replace more and more of the great ships of sail toward the end of the 19th century, the use of shanties and the jobs of the shantymen began to decline.

Below is a clickable list to some of the more popular tunes. They represent only a fraction of the many shanties and sea songs that were used during the Age of Sail. I have compiled this list to give you a sense of what the songs were like and a feel for that period in time. They include the tune and lyrics, with some giving a brief bit of information about the song. The lyrics used are not 'set in stone'. In some cases I have tried to use non-offensive versions for this site. The shanteymen themselves would often adapt a songs lyrics based on the task required to be done. The verses could be sung in any order or words altered, added or deleted.

Shanties and Sea Songs

A Hundred Years Ago All For Me Grog
Aweigh, Santy Ano Ballad of Captain Kidd
The Black Ball Line Blow the Man Down
The Bonnie Ship the Diamond Bound for the Rio Grande
The Coasts of High Barbary The Dead Horse
Drunken Sailor Hanging Johnny
Holy Ground Once More Homeward Bound
Leave Her, Johnny Maid of Amsterdam
The Ocean Burial Paddy, Get Back
The Pirate Song Rolling Down to Old Maui
Storm Along The Spanish Lady
Strike the Bell The Token
Yankee Whalermen Yo ho ho and a Bottle of Rum

Types of Shanties

    Capstan shanties were used for long repetitive tasks, that simply need a sustained rhythm. Raising or lowering the anchor while winding up the heavy anchor chain was their prime use. This winding was done by pushing round and round at the capstan bars, which required a long and continuous effort. These are the most devloped of the work shanties. Capstan shanties had steady rhythms and usually told stories because of the length of time (which could be hours) it took to raise the anchor. Sailors would stamp on the deck on the words. This gave rise to the term, "stamp and go chanties."

    Halyard (or Long Drag) shanties were sung to the raising and lowering of sails. Sails hung from wooden cross-pieces called yards. With the canvas and wood, sails could weigh between 1,000 and 2,500 pounds. To set sail a member of the crew would climb the rigging to loosen the canvas. On deck the crew would take hold of a line called the halyard (for haul + yard). The crew would rest during the verse and haul during the chorus. Depending on the weight of the sail, crews could pull one (for heavy jobs) to three (for lighter jobs) times per chorus.

    Short drag (or short haul) shanties were for tasks requiring quick pulls over a relatively short time, such as shortening or unfurling sails, and raising the masthead.

    Sailors would pump handles up and down, making the barrel of the windlass rotate to bring the anchor chain up. Pumps were fitting in ships to empty the bilge (the lowest part of the ship) of water. Wooden ships leaked, but not so fast that the crew could not pump the water out. There were several different types of pumps, which accounts for the variation in the timing of pumping shanties.

    Ceremonial and forecastle (the crews quarters) songs were those sung by sailors on their time off in the evening, when the work was done. These generally are the ballads or told stories of famous men, battles, romance, of their longing for home or just plain funny songs. Singing was a favored method of relaxation aboard ship. Ceremonial shanties were for times of celebration, such as when the sailor paid off his debt to the ship or when they crossed the equator.