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Songs of the Abundant Ocean

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Sailors cut up the carcass of a sperm whale off the side of a ship.
Cutting in a sperm whale.” Sailors cut a section of the head from a sperm whale in order to harvest spermaceti, a waxy oil, from the head cavity. H.S. Hutchinson & Co.,1903. Prints and Photographs Division.

June eighth is World Oceans Day, and an opportunity to look at a few examples of folksongs that relate to the interconnection between humans and the sea from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day.

In this recording, available via the link, James H. Gibbs of Nantucket, Massachusetts sings an untitled song about sperm whaling, recorded in 1934 by Miles Hanley and Robert Stone for the American Dialect Society research on New England dialects. [1]  Miles Hanley is the interviewer, and the voice of another linguist, Marguerite Chappalaz, can be heard in the background. It is clear from the comments that the linguists were delighted at the chance to hear a song of New England whaling from someone who remembered the era. The song clearly dates from whaling days. Gibbs was born in about 1851 and he did some whaling in his youth. But he says that he learned this song long before he went whaling: when he was a boy growing up on Nantucket. The song may have had some basis in fact, though there is not an exact match between the lyrics and historical records. I was not able to find the “Captain Edward Perry” of the song in records of Nantucket shipping. But Edward Wing Perry owned a shipping business in Nantucket in the 1850s and his brother William was a captain. Also, more than one Nantucket whaling ship may have been the “good ship Henry” in the song. [2]

The sperm whales Gibbs sings of were the source of unusual substances with many uses. Spermaceti, an oil containing wax harvested from the head of the sperm whale, was used to make clean burning candles, fine soaps, cosmetics, and, in liquid form, to make fuel for lamps. Oil from the blubber of the sperm whale was of a higher quality than other whale oils and was used to make lamp oil, machine lubricants, and other products. Ambergris, a waxy substance found in the intestines of the sperm whale, was, and still is, a precious commodity used to preserve scent in the perfume industry. Sperm whaling became a specialty of the Nantucket whaling industry and was especially lucrative, just  as it is described in the song. The world-wide pursuit of the sperm whale drastically reduced their numbers. Whaling in the United States, including sperm whaling, went into a gradual decline in the late 1800s as petroleum replaced spermaceti and whale oil, but whalers in other countries continued to hunt them. The International Whaling Commission banned all commercial whaling in 1986.

Man holding sea sponges threaded together with surrounded by more sponges.
The Sponge Exchange, Tarpon Springs, Florida, ca. 1928 (one photo from a stereo card). Prints and Photographs Division.

The song “Sponger Money” sung by Theodore “Tea Roll” Rolle, in 1940 is a traditional Bahamian song about  sponge diving in the Caribbean. [3]

Sponges are a group of animals that live attached to hard surfaces on the ocean floor. Those with soft skeletons were once used for everything we use plastic and cellulose sponges for today. The softest sea sponges continue to be valued as bath and cosmetic sponges. Sponges, at the time this song was sung, were plentiful, and so they were thought of as a source of easy money for those who could dive for them. The song has the repeated phrase, “sponger money never done,” that is, spongers never run out of income. In fact, over-harvesting threatens sponge populations. Sponges are also vulnerable to damage by fish trawling and by blights. To increase supply in the early twentieth century, sponge divers seeded sponges closer to their own fishing grounds by releasing sponges where they wanted them to live. One of the areas where this was done successfully was west of Andros Island in the Bahamas where Tea Roll grew up. Seeding sponges was only partially successful because areas that lack sponges may be areas where their natural predators are plentiful. [4] Modern methods of aquaculture are making it possible to “farm” sponges today and this, coupled with conservation efforts and continued research, can help to protect the diverse life on the seabed of the Gulf of Mexico. [5]

Atlantic menhaden fish, also called pogy or mossbunker, are a small oily fish and one of the most abundant fish on the Atlantic coast. Menhaden are sometimes described as “the most important fish in the sea” because they are a critical link between the plankton that they consume and the fish and birds that consume them. Historically they have been harvested for bait, food, lamp oil, and fertilizer. Today their greatest commercial value is as a source of omega 3 oil and as food in aquaculture. In 2009, at a symposium in honor of the late folklorist Archie Green, the Northern Neck Chanty Singers shared several songs that they use to coordinate the work of hauling in nets and other tasks in menhaden fishing in the Virginia waters at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. [6]  In the second song they sing “bye-bye” to the fish as they stow away their catch. These songs are the product of a long tradition of menhaden fishing on the Atlantic coast. In recent years the population of menhaden in the Atlantic has mysteriously declined. Although it is not certain to what degree fishing may play a part in the decline, it is hoped that caps on fishing may help the population to rebound. [7]

The Northern Neck Chanty Singers, introduced by Folklorist Judith McCulloh:


A thread that runs through the history behind these songs is the idea of a seemingly endless supply of resources to be harvested from the oceans. Today we know that ocean resources must be managed just as other resources need to be managed. But managing ocean resources requires knowledge. The oceans are a frontier in science, as there is still a great deal to learn about life in the sea. How can we improve efforts to bring back whale populations? How can balance be restored to the Caribbean seabed? Why have menhaden populations declined? Traditional sea songs represent both the enterprise and adventure of work on the ocean. A new ocean adventure of today is to understand ocean life and ecosystems better and learn to increase and preserve abundance in the sea.


  1. This song is from the American Dialect Society Collection, collection number AFC 1984/011: AFS 25569a. Another whaling song from the American Folklife Center’s archive became available after this article was published “The Greenland Whale Fishery” sung by Asel Trueblood was recorded in  Charles, Michigan, in 1938 by Alan Lomax (an item in the Alan Lomax Collection of Michigan and Wisconsin Recordings).
  2. Starbuck, Alexander, 1853. History of the American Whale Fishery from its Earliest Inception to the Year 1876. A ship called Henry is first listed in 1804 (p. 202). On page 508 a ship Henry is listed returning to Nantucket October 18, 1853 with Perry & Gardner listed as owners. I have been unable to learn whether Perry was Edward Wing Perry.
  3. This song is from the Stetson Kennedy and Robert Cook WPA Florida Recordings, collection number AFC 1939/013.  The recordings are online in Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937 to 1942. [A month after this article was posted, relatives of Theodore Rolle visited the American Folklife Center. We learned that Rolle was a sponge diver. Unfortunately he died in a diving accident. See a photo of the family visit in “Guess Who is Turning 1” by Stephen Winick in Folklife Today, October 30, 2014.]
  4. Corfield, George S., “Sponge Industry of the Caribbean Area.” Economic Geography, Vol. 14, No. 2, Apr., 1938, pp. 202-203. This article gives an overview of the scientific knowledge on sponge fishing at the time that the recording of “Sponger Money” was made.
  5. NOAA Strategic Plan for Deep-Sea Coral and Sponge Ecosystems: Research, Management, and International Cooperation, 2010. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. [PDF, 78 pp, 3.8MB]
  6. This video is an excerpt from a longer webcast “Archie Green Memorial: Remembering Archie” that is part of a larger event “Legends and Legacies: An American Folklife Center Celebration of Public Folklore,” collection number AFC 2009/028. More information and links to the full webcasts are available via the links on the titles.
  7. Menhaden,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


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