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  • Writer's pictureLeigh Gerstenberger

Sea Shanties

(Portions of this article are excerpted from The Art of Manliness by Brett & Kate McKay)

Growing up I was fortunate to have been exposed to all types of music. One genre that I had forgotten about until recently was the sea shanty.

Sea shanties were work songs sung on ships during the age of sail. They were used to keep rhythm during work and make it more pleasant. Because these songs were used to accomplish a goal, rather than for pure entertainment, the lyrics and melody were not very sophisticated. Still, the songs were usually meaningful and told of a sailor’s life, which included backbreaking labor, abuse from captain and crew, alcohol, and longing for girls and dry land.

A typical shanty had a call-and-response format. One sailor (a shanty man) would call out a verse, to which the rest of the sailors would respond in unison. The work would occur usually on the last syllable of the response or some other cue. An example can be found in the movie Moby Dick:

Shanty man: Our boots and clothes are all in pawn

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

Shanties were divided into several categories, named after the work for which they were used. There were long haul shanties and short haul shanties for long and short rope pulling. There were windlass shanties for pumping out water (all wooden ships leaked to some extent and water would have to be pumped out regularly), and capstan shanties for raising and lowering the anchor.

There was also a fifth kind of sailor song, which wasn’t really considered a true shanty because it was not used for work.

Foc’sle, forecastle or forebitters were songs sung after the work was over. They were named after the sailor’s living quarters, where they would gather around to drink and sing wild ballads.

The categories weren’t set in stone and sailors would often borrow songs and change the melody and rhythm to suit their work. It seems the only rules regarding sea shanties were that the songs talking about life at sea were sung on the outward part of the journey, and songs talking about coming home and dry land were sung while the ship was homeward bound.

I was pleasantly reminded of the lost musical art of sea shanties when I came across a recently released film on Netflix entitled Fisherman’s Friends, the subject of the film recommendation for the week. To help you get in the mood to watch the movie please enjoy this brief video of one of the iconic shanties of all time, Blow the Man Down, performed by The Men of the Robert Shaw Chorale.

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