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A Deep Dive Into Sea Shanties

Colored lithograph of a clipper ship under full sail.

Clipper ship Three Brothers, 2972 tons: The largest sailing ship in the world. Currier & Ives colored lithograph, 1875. LC Prints and Photographs Division. Find the archival scan here.

If you’ve been out recently on the high seas of social media, you may have noticed sea shanties becoming a viral trend on TikTok. If you don’t do TikTok yourself, you may have seen videos on Twitter or Facebook featuring everyone from large groups of young people to identical clones of Bernie Sanders singing a New Zealand whaling song called “Soon May the Wellerman Come.” If you’re interested in the TikTok trend, you can read more about it in this article at Slate. In the meantime, we thought we’d outline some of our shanty collections at the American Folklife Center, in case any ShantyTok fans want to find more songs to adapt! We made a condensed version of our introduction to shanties into our new podcast episode, which you can download here. This blog post is more of a “deep dive.”

Off the bat, I should say that some people use the phrase “sea shanty” to mean any song sung by sailors, but the word had a more specific meaning in nautical culture. Properly speaking, shanties are work songs sung aboard ships and boats. The word shanty, referring to this kind of song, turns up in the 1850s in the context of shipboard singing. No one initially called them “SEA shanties,” which would have been unnecessary: only seagoing work songs, it seems, were called “shanties” back then.

A burly sailor (right) sits with five other sailors, one of African descent, and two perhaps being petty officers, drinking grog at a plank-table slung from the roof ...

This detail from the 1822 print “The sailor’s description of a chase & capture” by George Cruikshank shows sailors socializing off-duty, where they might sing off-watch songs or forebitters. The print is notable for showing black and white sailors socializing together. The Library of Congress has copies of this print, but this beautifully colored copy is from the British Museum, and was shared on their website with a Creative Commons License.  Find the archival scan here.

By “work song,” folklorists mean a song sung while performing physical labor. This contrasts with the larger category of “occupational song,” which includes work songs but also songs about work, as well as songs sung mostly within a particular working community. A song about the life of a sailor, written and performed by sailors, still isn’t technically a shanty unless it’s performed during work. Sailors referred to the songs they sang off-duty variously as foc’sle songs, forebitters, or off-watch songs, referencing the places and times when they would sing purely for recreation. We have no evidence, by the way, that the Wellerman song, which was the viral spark of the shanty phenomenon on TikTok, was ever used as a shanty, so as far as we know it’s an occupational song of sailors, a “sea song,” but not technically a “sea shanty.” We have many such songs in our collections as well, including whaling songs. Alan Lomax recorded 76-year-old Asel Trueblood singing “Greenland Whale Fishery” in 1938. Trueblood said he had learned it 50 years previously, so in about 1888. Hear it in the player below, or at this link.

Continuing from the observation that sailors sang shanties to coordinate their manual labor, let’s remember that sailing vessels during much of the age of sail were vast machines made primarily of wood, canvas, and rope. They required a lot of skill and coordination from the whole crew to operate. Tasks on board ship often required many men to pull on a rope or work a lever on a windlass at exactly the same time, and shanties were used to coordinate these moves and improve the efficiency of the work.

Book cover showing one man with his wrists tied to the shrouds of a sailing vessel, while another man whips his back with a rope, leaving visible welts. Two other sailors look on.

“Shelfie” of my luridly-illustrated copy of Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast. This book, which despite the clothing in this illustration was published in 1834, contains one of the first descriptions of shanty singing.

The shanty had antecedents going back a long way, including simple chants, either wordless or with very few words, with which sailors timed their work. This kind of singing still existed while shanties flourished, and was called by sailors “singing out” or “yo-hoing.” But the tradition of shanties, by which we mean a varied repertoire of songs to coordinate shipboard work, with different lyrics, melodies, and titles for each song, seems to have arisen more recently. One of the earliest descriptions of this tradition comes from Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, published in 1834. Dana does not use the word “shanties,” which first appears about 20 years later, but the songs and descriptions are unmistakable.

Two of the earliest references to shanties by name are in Charles Nordhoff’s 1856 book The Merchant Vessel, where shantying is clearly described and the singer referred to as the “chanty-man,” and in the log book of the whale ship Atkins Adams during the 1858-1859 season, where we find several clear references to the use of shanties. The dates for these early descriptions suggest that the shanty as a developed genre dates to the early to mid-nineteenth century, when shipping companies were trying to deliver more cargo with fewer paid sailors, making it increasingly important to maximize the work they could get out of a few men.

It was mainly on commercial cargo vessels that shanties were developed. Naval sailors did not sing shanties; for one thing, it was considered bad for discipline. Also, naval ships carried comparatively huge numbers of men to work the guns and to fight, so there wasn’t such a need to maximize efficiency—there was always ample muscle power to work the ship. Whalers didn’t sing as many shanties as cargo-carrying sailors, either, for some of the same reasons—whaling ships carried mostly men to hunt whales, so there were usually extra hands for the work. But as the Adams‘s log book shows, they did use shanties for some tasks, especially rowing, and these survived among fishermen throughout the West Indies until recent times. You can hear one of AFC’s shanties used for rowing by Afro-Caribbean fishermen in Nevis at this link.

Like the example above, I hope the examples I’ve chosen throughout this blog post make clear the centrality of African Americans and Afro-Caribbean people to the shanty tradition, which is recognized by scholars but often forgotten in popular culture. Some of the most reliable sources on shanties tell us that often the most valued singer onboard a ship was a black sailor, and we can hear the connections between shanties and field hollers and other land-based work songs that African Americans knew. Stan Hugill, the last professional British shantyman we know of, learned many of his songs from black West Indian shipmates known to their friends as “Harding” (from Barbados) and “Harry Lauder” (from St. Lucia). Joanna Colcord, an American whose father was a ship captain and who grew up onboard tall ships, wrote in her 1924 book Roll and Go that “American Negroes” were “the best singers that ever lifted a shanty aboard ship.” Given this, it’s appropriate that shantying survives among African descendants in the Caribbean, as we’ve seen above, and in the African American community in the region where I live, especially among fishermen. At the end of this blog, I’ll provide a link to a video of the Northern Neck Chantey Singers, who keep the tradition alive in the Chesapeake Bay region.

Five men rowing a boat

A group of oarsmen in Newcastle, Nevis, sang shanties for Alan Lomax in 1962. Photo by Alan Lomax. Find the archival scan here.

One question we hear a lot is: should the word be spelled shanties, chanties, or chanteys? The answer to this is “yes.” As I mentioned above, the first two written references are to “shanties” on the one hand, and a “chanty-man” on the other. In 1868, two articles on sea songs were published, one using the term “chanty” and another “shanty.” Soon enough, we find former sailors using the singulars “shanty,” “chanty,” “chantey” and even “shantie” and “chantie,” as well as the plurals “shanties,” “chanties,” and “chanteys.”

One reason for this spelling free-for-all may be that there are different theories of the word’s origin. Some believe it is derived from the French “chanter,” which means “to sing.” In French, the initial “ch” is pronounced like “sh” in English, so this would explain why a word that sounds like “shanty” would be spelled “chanty.” Another theory is that the word came from loggers or lumberjacks, who sometimes participated in log drives bringing large logs down rivers to waiting ships, where they would interact with sailors. During the logging season, many loggers lived in lumber-camp barracks known as “shanties.” Loggers also had work songs, so the theory is that loggers brought their “shanty-songs” to sailors, who abbreviated the word to “shanties.” Some believe the word derives from the shanties where African American laborers lived while working as roustabouts loading ships. Finally, some theorize that the word comes from the West Indies, where similar work songs are sometimes used while building and moving small houses or shanties. There’s no direct evidence for any of these etymologies, so how sailors or writers choose to spell the word might reflect which of the etymologies they choose to believe.

Photo of a three-masted schooner.

An Old Time Schooner, Detroit Publishing Company, 1908. This photo shows the schooner Hattie Hutt, which was built in Saugatuck, MI., 1873, and wrecked in 1929. Shanties were also sung in Great Lakes vessels. LC Prints and Photographs Division. Find the archival scan here.

I’ve chosen the spelling “shanties” following Joanna Colcord, who wrote:

I am adopting in this book the spelling “shanty” simply because all landsmen who meet the other spelling naturally pronounce it with the “ch” hard as in “church”; a pronunciation which sends a shudder down every seaman’s spine. “Chantey” looks better on the page, can not be confused with other meanings of the same word, and in the subtle sense of word-feeling seems to suggest more closely than “shanty” the spirit of a sea-song. Yet all these considerations are far outweighed in a seaman’s mind by the horrid possibility of encouraging that hard “ch.” In other words, I am deliberately choosing the spelling I least prefer, for purposes of nautical accuracy.

However they spelled the word, sailors became very adept at developing shanties to meet their needs. There were several different general kind of tasks that were done while singing shanties. The most basic division was between “hauling” shanties, used for changing the sail configuration or moving other parts of the ship by pulling on ropes, and “heaving” shanties, used for working machines like capstans, windlasses, and pumps. The former typically required individual coordinated bursts of strength when hauling, while the latter required sustained labor while, for example, walking around a capstan for hours in order to raise the anchor. Because they were sung during work, and had to be sung at the speed at which work was possible, shanties were actually sung slower than most modern people expect. The upbeat arrangements you hear on ShantyTok are way faster than the real deal!

Within the two major categories of heaving shanties and hauling shanties, the songs were often identified by sub-type. We have examples of all the types in our collections, so I’ll give a few examples.

Short-haul or short-drag shanties were used for tasks that required a few coordinated pulls. One of the best known short-drag shanties was “Haul Away, Joe.” Robert Winslow Gordon, the first head of our archive from 1928 to 1932, recorded several versions of this song on both the east and west coasts of the U.S., calling it simply “Haul Away.” The version online was sung by Mr. A. Wilkins, probably on the east coast, and probably in about 1932. Sadly, Gordon didn’t write anything down about Mr. Wilkins, so we can’t tell you more about him. But you can hear him in the player below, or at this link!

Another famous short-drag shanty is “Boney,” whose title is a derisive name for Napoleon Bonaparte. Common on English and American ships alike, the song continued to be popular as a work song in the West Indies into the 1960s, when it was recorded by Alan Lomax from a group of fishermen in Anguilla. Hear “Boney” at this link!

Stamp-and-go or walk-away shanties were used for two main tasks: hauling on the weather-braces in order to tack the ship, and using a mysterious apparatus called a “Devil’s instrument” to scrape barnacles and other accretions off the ship’s bottom. (According to Stan Hugill, each captain had his own “Devil’s instrument” design.) One of the best known stamp-and-go shanties was an African American religious song which went to sea, known as “We’ll Roll the Old Chariot Along.” Gordon recorded a version of this from an unknown sailor in California; as a bonus, on the same cylinder he recorded the short-drag shanty “Haul the Woodpile Down.” Hear them both in the player below, or at this link.

Five men hauling on a rope on the deck of a ship.

Shadow of the Mainsail, etching by Arthur Briscoe, 1932. These men are working the halyards. British Museum, shared with a Creative Commons License. Find the archival scan here.

Probably the largest class of hauling songs were the halyard shanties, used for setting sails on movable spars called “yards.” The ropes that hauled these yards were the halyards, and gave their name to the class of songs. This work was somewhat more sustained and precise than the short drags, and longer songs with brisk call-and-response were called for.

One of my favorite halyard shanties is “Hanging Johnny,” which is a good example of the shanty’s use of wordplay. In some cases, when many men were hauling on the same rope, those who were grasping it high above their heads pulled by letting their knees go limp and simply hanging on, contributing their entire weight to the task. In some cases, ship’s boys would climb the masts and literally jump off while hanging onto the rope, acting as a weight that the men would pull down toward the deck. These actions were encouraged by the bosun shouting “hang!” A Great Lakes sailor named Mr. Joys told the collector Ivan Walton that “hang” was “the best…pulling word in the language.” At some point, a clever sailor figured out that the repeated cries of “hang” could be incorporated into a song about a hangman. The result is “Hanging Johnny,” who tells us about hanging all his relatives, before he finally admits in the end, “I Never Hanged Nobody.” Sidney Robertson Cowell recorded a version of this song from Leighton Robinson and a group of friends in California in 1939. Hear it in the player below, or at this link.

Another of my favorite halyard shanties is “Pay Me My Money Down.” First noted aboard an English ship in 1858, the song was still being sung in English vessels in the early 20th century when Stan Hugill was a shantyman. Hugill noted two different versions, both from black West Indian sailors. The song also came ashore, where roustabouts in coastal Georgia sang it while loading timber into schooners. In an African American context, the song may reflect the prevailing racism of the time just after emancipation, when white bosses were trying to get out of paying their black laborers. In that context, the roustabouts had to be quite assertive to demand their money. This form of the song appeared in Lydia Parrish’s book Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands, and also in the repertoire of the Georgia Sea Island Singers. From there, Pete Seeger learned it and performed it with the Weavers; the Kingston Trio played it in the 50s and 60s folk revival; and in the 2000s, Bruce Springsteen arranged a version. AFC has at least two versions—a field recording made by Alan Lomax in Florida in 1940, and his 1959 recording of the Sea Island Singers. Hear the Sea Island Singers sing “Pay Me My Money Down” at this link.

Eight African American men sit on upturned buckets.

The male members of the Georgia Sea Island Singers with John Davis in the foreground, with a cigarette. This was the group that sang “Pay Me My Money Down” for Alan Lomax. Photo by Alan Lomax. Find the archival scan here.

And for a special bonus, see Bruce Springsteen’s licensed video for “Pay Me My Money Down at this link.

At least one halyard shanty had a ceremonial function. On the Library of Congress website this song is called “Poor Old Man,” but when we released it on an album, first in the 1950s and then on CD in the 1990s, the liner notes referred to it by its alternate title, “Dead Horse.” The “Dead Horse” shanty refers to a particular tradition among sailors relating to the advance they typically drew on their wages. Usually, a sailor went to sea after his credit ran out ashore, so he used an advance on his wages to pay his creditor, who was usually the boarding house master where he lived. Because of this, for the first one to three months of his voyage he was just working off his debt—which was known as “paying for a dead horse.” Since most of the sailors on a given ship had a one month advance, the crew often staged a ceremony at the close of the 30th day at sea, in which they dumped an effigy horse in the ocean after hoisting it up to the main yard using this song. Leighton Robinson explained the ceremony to Sidney Robertson Cowell:

They would get a tar barrel and get ‘Chips’ to make a horse’s head to it, and put a tar brush in the stern of it and for a tail…and then they would mount it on this thing [a sort of cart], and generally the shantyman would get astride of it and, as I say, it being fine weather, why they’d start and pull this thing along the deck. And then the shanty-man would sing the song, what they called ‘Poor Old Man’ or ‘The Burying of the Dead Horse.’ Having worked up thirty days, why, then the next day they were going on pay. They were really earning some money then. ‘Course they’d be into the slopchest probably for a few beans, but at the same time they’d feel that they’d begun to earn their money.

I might explain to you that we hoisted [the horse] up to the main yard arm, and then there was a fellow up there… generally used the clew garnet, you know, just to hoist him up there, we had to put a strop around the barrel…and then they would just cut him adrift. And then you’d see this old thing floating astern.

Hear “Poor Old Man” or “Dead Horse” in the player below, or at this link!

Four men standing outdoors, laughing.

Leighton Robinson, Alex Barr, Leighton McKenzie, and Arthur Brodeur, November 1939. California Folk Music Project Collection. Find the archival scan here.

Heaving shanties were used for continuous sustained tasks such as pumping the ship dry, warping the ship into dock, and raising anchor. The last two tasks were accomplished by means of a capstan, a machine that translates the manpower of sailors walking around in a circle into continuous force on a rope or chain. Some scholars and collectors, like Joanna Colcord, call all heaving shanties “capstan shanties,” but others distinguish between capstan and pumping shanties. One of the most famous capstan shanties was “Shenandoah,” whose first appearance in print was in an article by William L. Alden, titled “Sailor Songs,” published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1882. Hear retired sailor Richard Maitland’s version, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1937, in the player below, or at this link.

Of course, “Shenandoah” is also one of the American folksongs most beloved of classical arrangers. In the next player, or at this link, hear and see a classical arrangement of the song sung by baritone Thomas Hampson.

Men walking around a capstan pushing on capstan bars

The Capstan. Engraving by Arthur Briscoe, 1925. British Museum. Creative Commons License. Find the archival scan here.

The capstan shanty that we included in the podcast was “The Amsterdam Maid,” as sung by Charles J. Finger. Some scholars have used this song as evidence that shanties are very old, tracing it to a song in Thomas Heywood’s 1640 play “The Rape of Lucrece.” In fact, the two songs are similar but clearly different songs, and no modern folklorist considers “The Amsterdam Maid” to be derived from or related to the earlier song. Charles J. Finger was a great character whom I wrote about in this previous blog post; he visited the Library in 1937 and was recorded by John and Alan Lomax. Hear him sing in the player below.

Shanties were a heterogeneous group of songs, with diverse origins. Some came to sea from shore, and we can trace individual shanties back to African American work songs and spirituals, theater songs of vaudeville and the music-hall, and even much older British songs and ballads. Others were pretty clearly written by sailors at sea. One of my favorite versions of the halyard shanty “Blow the Man Down” in AFC’s collections uses the old English ballad of “The Farmer’s Curst Wife” as its verses. It was collected in manuscript form by James Madison Carpenter, so I revived it and sang it in an Archive Challenge concert. You can hear me sing it at this link!

Sepia photo of five men standing in a single-masted saiboat.

This photo of Charles J. Finger (center) and four other men in a single-masted sloop, between 1890 and 1895, appears in his book Seven Horizons with the caption “In this boat we sailed down the west coast to Cape Horn waters.” Courtesy of the University of Arkansas Libraries Special Collections.

Another variant of “Blow the Man Down” was recorded from the retired sailor Noble Brown by Helene Stratman Thomas. This version was, I suspect, written by Brown himself or someone he knew, since the details of being becalmed at sea for three weeks exactly matched his own experience. It’s a charming fantasy story involving a becalmed ship, King Neptune, and some friendly fish and aquatic mammals, completely unlike any other version of “Blow the Man Down” that I’ve ever seen. Find Brown’s song, including audio and transcription of the lyrics, at this link.

Another thing to mention is that, while the shanty tradition was mostly a domain of men, there were situations in which women sang them. It was unusual for women to go to sea as working sailors, and most commercial shipping lines wouldn’t hire them back in the days of shipboard shanties. Most of our recordings of women singing shanties come from the Caribbean, where in some shore-based communities people did tasks like rowing and hauling nets to catch fish, and even hunting whales, from shore-based boats. In these communities, people did seafaring tasks but didn’t need to set sail for months in order to do them, so women participated more in that kind of work. And in those communities, women knew and sang shanties. At this link, find “We All Going Ashore” by a group of men and women from Anguilla, including Florence Brooks and Eugenie Carter. The group performed some of the songs while hoeing a field, adapting rowing shanties to land-based work.

Two women singing

Florence Brooks and Eugenie Carter sing with a work gang. The group used shanties, including “We All Going Ashore,” while digging with hoes. Photo by Alan Lomax, 1962. Find the archival scan here.

Of course, there’s plenty more to say about shanties and sea songs, but even deep dives have to let you up for air! We’ll give you one last song, a capstan shanty for saying goodbye. As is often the case, we have several versions.

At this link, find a West Indian version from Anguilla called “Adieu, Fare You Well.”

In the player below, or at this link, hear it sung by Leighton Robinson and friends, as “Goodbye, Fare You Well.”

This does not exhaust AFC’s supplies of shanties and sailors’ songs by a long shot! Here’s where to look for more!

For audio of sea songs in AFC collections at loc.gov, try this link!

For songs indexed as “chanteys” collected by Alan Lomax after 1942, and included in the American Folklife Center’s Alan Lomax Collection, visit the Lomax Archive here.

For songs indexed as “sailor songs” collected by Alan Lomax after 1942, and included in the American Folklife Center’s Alan Lomax Collection, visit the Lomax Archive here.

For sailors’ songs in the Wisconsin Folksong Collection, which is shared by the American Folklife Center and the University of Wisconsin, visit the UW website here.

For the American Folklife Center’s James Madison Carpenter Collection, which contains shanties collected in manuscript and on wax cylinders, visit the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library here.

For a video of the Northern Neck Chantey Singers, visit this link.

Sources

A shelf of books about shanties and sea songs.

My shanty shelf!

Above is my “shelfie” of shanty books! The books I used most in writing the above blog post were:

Colcord, Joanna. 1924. Roll and Go: Songs of American Sailormen.

Hugill, Stan. 1966. Shanties from the Seven Seas.

Hugill, Stan. 1969. Shanties and Sailors’ Songs.

Schreffler, Gibb. 2018. Boxing the Compass: a Century and a Half of Discourse About Sailor’s Chanties. Camsco Music, Loomis House Press.

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