Shanty [chanty, chantey]
Shanty [chanty, chantey]
- Roy Palmer
A work song used by sailors to coordinate effort and lighten labour aboard ships powered only by human muscles and the natural elements. Shanties consisted mainly of solo leads and roaring choruses said to be audible up to a mile away. Such songs can be traced back to ancient times, but few texts and no tunes have survived from before the 19th century. The word is obscure in origin and dates from the 1850s.
The spread of steam power at sea ended the need for shantying, but as early as 1900 the songs were revived ashore for use on the concert platform and in schools, a feeble echo of their old wildness and vigour. A second revival, however, starting in the 1950s and drawing inspiration from the last surviving shantymen, produced performances whose salty zest would have been instantly familiar to the sailors of a century earlier.
Ever since seafarers pulled together at oars or hauled on ropes they seem to have galvanized their muscles and distracted their thoughts with some kind of vocal activity, ranging from grunts, yelps and exhortations to chants or songs. In the 5th century the goatherds Daphnis and Chloe watched a passing ship on the Aegean and noticed that just as ‘other Marriners used to do to elude the tediousness of labour, these began [to sing], and held on as they rowed along. There was one amongst them that was the Celeustes, or the hortator [encourager] to ply, and he had certain nautic odes or Sea-songs: the rest like a Chorus all together strained their throats to a loud holla, and cacht his voice at certain intervals’ (Lloyd, 1967, p.288). Viking vessels of the 7th century are known to have carried an officer whose task it was to lead a chant for the oarsmen. Over 1000 years later Samuel Johnson (A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland, 1775, ed. R.W. Chapman, London, 1970, p.56) observed during a visit to Scotland:
They accompany in the Highlands every action, which can be done in equal time, with an appropriate strain, which has, they say, not much meaning; but its effects are regularity and cheerfulness. The ancient proceleusmatick [inspiriting] song, by which the rowers of gallies were animated, may be supposed to have been of this kind.
The earliest known English sea song survives in a 14th-century manuscript describing a pilgrim ship’s voyage to Santiago de Compostela. It contains several expressions, including ‘Howe, hissa’, ‘Y how, taylia’ and ‘Y howe, trussa’, encouraging those pulling on ropes (preface to J. Ashton, Real Sailor-Songs, London, 1891). Similarly, when Felix Fabri, a Dominican friar, sailed from Venice on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1493 he noticed ‘mariners who sing when work is going on, because work at sea is very heavy, and is only carried on by a concert between one who sings out orders and his labourers who sing in response’ (Hugill, 1969, p.3). In shouting instructions above the noise of the storm in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Act 1 scene i) the boatswain calls: ‘Heigh, my hearts! Cheerly, cheerly, my hearts! Yare, yare! Take in the topsail’. Andrew Shewan, a clipper captain who first went to sea in 1860, listed very similar phrases, such as ‘Heave, my hearties’, ‘Cheerly, lads’ and ‘Rouse him up’, while ‘at the main sheet it would be “Oh, lug him a-lee!”; at the main tack such a phrase as “Board him in the smoke, boys!”; or, when setting a stunsail, “Boom end her!” All these might be called “sea cheers”’ (A. Shewan: The Great Days of Sail, London, 1927, p.108).
When ‘sea cheers’ failed to produce sufficient effort, something more substantial was needed. One of Richard Hakluyt’s manuscripts, published by Samuel Purchas only a dozen years after The Tempest, records that ‘when mariners do hale or pull at anything they do make a noise, as it were crying ha woet hale men hale’ (Laughton, 1923, p.48). This device, later known as ‘Yo-ho-ing’ or ‘Yo-heave-oh-ing’, also had limited power, however, as R.H. Dana (1840) described: ‘Many a time when a thing goes heavy with one fellow yo-ho-ing, a lively song, like Heave to the girls, Nancy oh!, Jack Crosstree, &c., has put real life and strength into every arm’.
The earliest notated British shanty texts (tunes were not written down until over 400 years later) are found in a polemical work ascribed to Robert Wedderburn, The Complaynt of Scotland (1548), which includes a description of a ship’s departure from the Firth of Forth. Scraps of various shanties are quoted, for example as the anchor is raised and then secured:
than the marynalis began to veynd the cabil, vith mony loud cry. ande as ane cryit, al the laif cryit in that samyn tune … . and as it aperit to me, thai cryit … veyre veyra, veyra veyra. gentil gallādis, gentil gallādis. veynde i see hym, veynd i see hym. pourbossa, pourbossa. hail al ande ane, hail al and ane. hail hym up til us, hail hym up til us. Than quhen the ankyr was halit up abufe the vatir, ane marynel cryit, and al the laif follouit in that sam tune, caupon caupona, caupon caupona. caupun hola, caupun hola. caupun holt, caupon holt. sarrabossa, sarrabossa. than thai maid fast the schank of the ankyr.
After such early examples, references to shantying disappear for some centuries, perhaps because it was deemed too commonplace to be worthy of remark. When allusions are found again in the 19th century they still do not include the words ‘shanty’ or ‘shantying’. In 1811 dockers in Jamaica using a capstan to unload a vessel sang ‘an English song … at the end of which all the rest join in a short chorus’ (Hay, 1953, p.201). 20 years later a passenger travelling from London to the Orient aboard an East Indiaman hears ‘old ditties’ sung at the capstan (Doerflinger, 1951). In 1837 Frederick Marryat, a former naval captain and a novelist, travelled from Portsmouth to New York as a passenger on the Quebec. ‘The seamen, as usual’, he wrote in his diary, ‘lightened their labour with the song and chorus, forbidden in the etiquette of a man-of-war. … The one they sung was particularly musical, though not refined; and the chorus of ‘Oh! Sally Brown’, was given with great emphasis by the whole crew between every line of the song, sung by an athletic young third mate’.
Dana (1840) listed 11 shanties by title and described shantying in detail, though without using either word: ‘The sailors’ songs for capstans and falls are of a peculiar kind, having a chorus at the end of each line. The burden is usually sung by one alone, and at the chorus all hands join in – and the louder the noise the better’. A few years later Charles Nordhoff described how his ship was loaded with cotton at Mobile Bay (Doerflinger, 1951). Many of the stevedores (otherwise known as hoosiers or cotton-screwers) were sailors who preferred to spend their winters doing such work rather than going to sea. Nordhoff observed:
Singing, or chanting as it is called, is an invariable accompaniment to working in cotton, and many of the screw-gangs have an endless collection of songs … answering well the purposes of making all pull together, and enlivening the heavy toil. The foreman is the chanty-man, who sings the song, the gang only joining in the chorus, which comes in at the end of every line, and at the end of which again comes the pull of the screw handles.
This account, published in 1856, predates the Oxford English Dictionary’s first record of ‘shanty’ (1869) and ‘shanty-man’ (1876). While the dictionary suggests that ‘shanty’ may be a corruption of the French chantez (from chanter, ‘to sing’), the English word ‘chant’ could be the root of ‘chanty’ and ‘shanty’. The latter pronunciation has also given rise to the theory first advanced by R.R. Terry, based on his own observations in the West Indies during the 1890s, where he saw what he calls the ‘very ancient custom’ of resiting huts:
The object moved was a shanty; the music accompanying the operation was called … a shanty tune; its musical form (solo and chorus) was identical with the sailor shanty; the pulls on the rope followed the same method which obtained at sea; the soloist was called a shantyman; like the shantyman at sea he did no work, but merely extemporized verses to which the workers at the ropes supplied the chorus.
Another idea suggests a connection with the Canadian lumberjacks, who in the early 19th century were known as ‘shantyboys’. This seems more likely to have stemmed from the shanties in which they lived than from their songs, but they did accompany with solo and chorus singing their work of floating great rafts of logs down the rivers in spring. The French-speaking voyageurs who travelled the same rivers with similar songs have also been put forward as a possible source of the word but this seems unlikely: their contact with the wider world, like that of the lumberjacks, was very restricted.
3. Texts and tunes.
Shanties were subordinate to the tasks they accompanied. The command ‘belay’ (known as the shanty full-stop) or ‘avast heaving’ put an instant end to both work and singing. Solo lines (but not choruses) were often coarse and sometimes obscene, and shantymen might disguise offensive lyrics in deference to passengers or the captain’s wife. For example, in the couplet ‘Oh Sally Brown [or ‘Shenadore’], I love your daughter, And I love the spot where she makes water’, the second line could be varied to: ‘And I love the place where first I sought her’. Few of the uncamouflaged words, even now, have been published.
A good shantyman was expected to improvise. He would also borrrow verses from different shanties and adapt entire songs to his purposes. British, Irish, West Indian and American seamen all brought material to the common stock, some of it drawn from traditional repertories ashore and some from popular contemporary songs. The capstan shanty Whoop Jamboree, for example, started life as one of White’s Ethiopian Melodies, published in 1851.
From the hoosiers of the American south sailors picked up songs such as General Taylor, Mobile Bay and Roll the Cotton Down. The 30 versions of Blow the Man Down noted by one collector combined the texts of two ‘forebitters’ or sailors’ off-duty songs (Ratcliffe Highway and Tiger Bay), two traditional songs (The Farmer’s Curst Wife and Windy Old Weather), a broadside (The Indian Lass) and four other shanties (Knock a Man Down, The Black Ball, The Flying Fish Sailor and The Ship ‘Neptune’) (Carpenter, 26 July 1931, p.10). Chaotic though it may be, the shanty corpus provides a vivid picture of sailors’ life ashore and afloat, ranging from accounts of sordid encounters in dockside dives to stirring evocations of real or mythical heroes such as Napoleon or Stormalong.
In 1908 Percy Grainger met John Perring of Dartmouth, whom he described as a ‘Genius Sea Chanty singing man’, who recalled the days when ships’ captains vied with one another to sign on the best shantyman. Grainger transcribed several fine shanties, including Storm Along (ex.1), in meticulous detail, and was struck by the ‘wayward, random impulsiveness, and profuse melodic, rhythmic and dynamic variations’ of Perring’s singing (Grainger, 1908, p.231). Many shanties, with their opportunities for virtuoso singing such as this, show modal influence. The well-known Drunken Sailor is in the Dorian mode, as are versions of The Plains of Mexico, Bring ’em Down and Lowlands Away (the last, like a number of other Dorian tunes, having no sixth, in both its major and its minor-key versions). Haul away for Rosie is Mixolydian, and others are Aeolian in at least one version, such as Randy Dandy O, The Hog-eye Man and Shenandoah (the last again lacking the sixth degree). Sally Brown swings between minor and tonic major, with a passing Mixolydian inflection in an otherwise major section. A-rolling Down the River (also known as The Saucy ‘Arabella’) (ex.2) passes through three different keys and finishes a tone lower than it began. Often shanties do not end on the tonic, creating an ‘unfinished’ effect; examples include Goodbye, Fare Ye Well (also known as Homeward Bound), which modulates to the dominant in the final bar. Most shanties were in cheerful major keys, however, and modal and minor-key melodies tended also to evolve towards the major mode. They seem, nevertheless, to have cast a lasting spell over generations of sailors, and some, such as Grainger’s setting of Perring’s Shallow Brown, can be almost unbearably beautiful.
Shanties fall into two main groups: those for use at the windlass or capstan, and those for hauling on ropes, although the boundaries are by no means rigid.
The windlass had a horizontal barrel turned by levers that were moved up and down. The capstan, a later development, was an upright version of the same device, powered by men who shuffled round in a circle, pushing bars as they went. The boast of a good shantyman was that his singing supplied ‘the best bar of the capstan’. The windlass or capstan was used to weigh anchor, to warp a ship alongside her berth, or to raise heavy objects such as a spar or an item of cargo. Songs tended to be quite long, and singing continued throughout a spell of work. Windlass shanties such as Sally Brown and Storm Along consisted, much like halyard shanties, of four-line stanzas with alternating solo and chorus lines. The last note in a shantyman’s line would invariably overlap with the chorus’s first note; the shantyman would then re-enter on the chorus’s last note, and so on throughout. Although windlass shanties were taken over for use at the capstan, with many like Shenandoah and We’re All Bound to Go retaining the familiar double solo-chorus pattern, others added a further four-line chorus. The Banks of Sacramento does this, while A-rolling Down the River adds two.
Shanties for hauling on ropes also used a four-line stanza with alternating solo and response. Although all the men involved sang the choruses in a halyard shanty as they hoisted a yard up the mast, they pulled only twice in each case. In Blow, Boys, Blow they pulled on the words italicized in ex.3. ‘Hand over hand’ songs such as Sally Racket, used for hoisting a light sail, went to a quicker rhythm and had verses of four solo lines alternating with four choruses, on each of which there was one pull: ‘Haul ’em away’. With a bowline or foresheet shanty such as Haul Away, Joe or Haul on the Bowline the concerted pull came only once, on the last word of the chorus: ‘Haul on the bowline, the bowline, haul’. Since there was no shantyman aloft when sails were furled, the men would simply sing in unison. Standing on a swaying footrope, perhaps in half a gale, they would cling to the yard with one hand and grasp a fistful of canvas in the other just as they reached the end of each two-line stanza: ‘To me way, ay-ee ay, ya!/We’ll pay Paddy Doyle for his boots’. Unison singing applied, too, though without any particularly emphasized words, in ‘stamp and go’ songs like The Drunken Sailor, when a gang of men would pick up a rope and run along the deck with it. The manoeuvre took place when the ship went about or a boat was hoisted inboard.
After a month at sea, when the men had worked off their advance in wages, they would sing The Dead Horse and raise to the main yardarm an effigy made of scraps of wood, canvas and perhaps a barrel which was then ceremonially dropped into the sea. The same shanty could be heard in ports of the west coast of South America when the last bag of salt petre came aboard before a vessel sailed for home.
For pumping, depending on the type of machine used, windlass or capstan shanties usually served. At the end of a voyage, as a ship was pumped out for the last time or the capstan was manned to warp alongside, the customary choice would be Leave her, Johnny, with its bitter criticisms of officers and ship:
Oh the captain was a bastard and the first mate was a turk,
Leave her, Johnny, leave her;
And the bosun was a bugger with the middle name of work,
It’s time for us to leave her.
5. Revival and survival.
As early as 1884 a newspaper article lamented: ‘The beau-ideal chanty-man has been relegated to the past. His death-knell was the shriek of the steam-whistle and the thump of the engines’ (L.A. Smith, 1888, p.5). Three years later the first of many anthologies of shanty texts with their tunes appeared. Haswell’s Collection of Sea Shanties was published on board ship in Australia in 1879, and as early as 1841 two shanties with music had been included in Olmstead's account of a whaling voyage. Nostalgia stimulated an appetite for memoirs of sailors’ lives at sea, and many of these included accounts of shantying. Folksong collectors, too, began to take an interest: Frank Kidson noted a shanty in 1893, Cecil Sharp followed suit with 150 more obtained from retired sailors, while Anne Gilchrist, Percy Grainger and several others found further material.
Sailors had seldom sung shanties ashore, but now landsmen started to take them up, with bowdlerized words and prettified styles of delivery. In 1905 John Masefield, noting that he had ‘heard chanties sung upon the stage both in this country and America’, complained that ‘they were not in the least like the real thing’. The same could have been said for the next half-century of the ‘folk-chanteys’ set to piano accompaniment by Cecil Sharp that were sung in schools or on the concert platform.
The folksong revival of the 1950s, led by Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd, encouraged the search for a more authentic style of singing shanties and less inhibited texts. Several sailors who had sung shanties at sea were traced and recorded in the 1960s, including Paddy Walsh, a Liverpool Irishman, and Stanley Slade of Pill, near Bristol. The most influential figure, though, was Stan Hugill, an accomplished singer who had served as a shantyman and produced an authoritative book on the subject (1961).
With such models available it proved possible to revive the singing styles of the original shantymen sailors of a century earlier. Although some modern performers have sung as they worked aboard sailing ships at sea, shanties are now overwhelmingly an entertainment and a recreation for people ashore. By a quirk of cultural history the songs of ‘the sailor, the stoker of steamers, the man with the clout, / The chantyman bent at the halliards putting a tune to the shout, / The drowsy man at the wheel and the tired look-out’ (Masefield) seem destined for a long life on land.
And other resources
- J. Leydon, ed.: The Complaynt of Scotland (1548) (Edinburgh, 1801)
- F. Marryat: A Diary in America (London, 1839)
- R.H. Dana: Two Years Before the Mast (New York, 1840); ed. M. Horder (London, 1986)
- F.A. Olmstead: Incidents of a Whaling Voyage (New York, 1841)
- W.L. Alden: ‘Sailors’ Shanties and Sea Songs’, Chambers Journal (11 Dec 1869), 794–6
- W.L. Alden: ‘Sailor Songs’, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (July, 1882), 281–6
- R.C. Leslie: A Sea Painter’s Log (London, 1886)
- J. Davis and F. Tozer: Sailor Songs and ‘Chanties’ (London, 1887)
- ‘Chanties and Sea-Songs’, Fairplay (1888), 16 Nov, 801–2; 23 Nov, 841–3; 30 Nov, 884–5; 7 Dec, 925–6; 14 Dec, 969–70; repr. in Folk Review, vii (1977–8), no.6, 13–15; no.7, 9–11; no.9, 16–18; no.10, 22–4; viii/1 (1978–9), 23–5
- L.A. Smith: Music of the Waters (London, 1888)
- F. Fabri: ‘The Book of the Wanderings of Brother Felix Fabri (1493)’, Library of the Palestine Pilgrims Text Society (1893), no.7
- F. Kidson: ‘Sailors’ Songs’, JFSS, 1/2 (1900), 39–42
- S.B. Luce: Naval Songs: a Collection of Original, Selected and Traditional Sea Songs, Songs of Sailors and Shanties (New York, 2/1902)
- J. Masefield: ‘Chanties’, Manchester Guardian (16 Aug 1905), 10
- D.H. Bernard: ‘Sea Songs and Chanties’, Nautical Magazine, 75 (1906), 431–5
- A.G. Gilchrist: ‘Sailors’ Songs’, JFSS, 2/9 (1906), 236–49
- W.B. Whall: Ships, Sea Songs and Shanties (Glasgow, 1910/R as Sea Songs and Shanties)
- J. Masefield: A Sailor’s Garland (London, 1906)
- J. Masefield: ‘Sea-songs’, Temple Bar (London, 1906), 56–80
- P. Grainger: ‘Songs Collected in Lincolnshire, and Shanties’, JFSS, 3/12 (1908), 170–242
- J.H. Williams: ‘The Sailor’s “Chanties’”, The Independent [New York] (8 July 1909), 76–83
- W.I. Downie: Reminiscences of a Blackwall Midshipman (London, 1912)
- C. Beckett: Shanties and Forebitters (London, 1914)
- C.J. Sharp: English Folk-Chanteys (London, 1914)
- H.E. Piggott: ‘Sailors’ Chanties Collected by Harry E. Piggott’, JFSS, 5/20 (1916), 306–15
- C. Sharp: ‘Sailors’ Chanties’, JFSS, 5/20 (1916), 297–305
- R.C. Brown: ‘Sailors’ Shanties’, Nautical Magazine, 97 (1917), 294–9
- J. Robinson: ‘Songs of the Chantey Man’, The Bellman (Minneapolis, 14 July–4 Aug 1917)
- R.R. Terry: The Shanty Book, 1–2 (London, 1921–6)
- L.G.C. Laughton: ‘Shantying and Shanties’, Mariner’s Mirror, 9 (1923), 48–55, 66–74
- J.C. Colcord: Roll and Go: Songs of American Sailormen (Indianapolis, IN, 1924/R)
- G.P. Boughton: Seafaring (London, 1926)
- W. Saunders: ‘Sailor Songs, and Songs of the Sea, i: Shanties’, Musical Opinion (Aug 1926), 1102–4
- J. Sampson: The Seven Seas Shanty Book (London, 1927)
- W. Saunders: ‘Folk Songs of the Sea’, Musical Opinion (July 1927), 984–5
- C.F. Smith: A Book of Shanties (London, 1927)
- L.E. Broadwood: ‘Early Chantey-Singing and Ship-Music’, JFSS, 8/32 (1928), 25–60
- G. Sorrell: The Man Before the Mast (London, 1928)
- J.E. Thomas: ‘Sea Shanties’, JFSS, 8/32 (1928), 96–100
- J.M. Carpenter: Forecastle Songs and Shanties (diss., Harvard U., 1929)
- P. Mortimer-Evans: ‘At Sea in the Eighteen-Eighties: Shanties and their Singers’, Nautical Magazine, 124 (1930), 129–31
- D.W. Bone: Capstan Bars (Edinburgh, 1931)
- J.M. Carpenter: ‘Lusty Chanteys from Long-Dead Ships’, New York Times Magazine (12 July 1931)
- J.M. Carpenter: ‘Life Before the Mast: a Chantey Log’, New York Times Magazine (19 July 1931)
- J.M. Carpenter: ‘Chanteys that “Blow the Man Down”’, New York Times Magazine (26 July 1931), 10, 15
- J.M. Carpenter: ‘Chanteys in the Age of Sail’, New York Times Magazine (30 Oct 1938), 6
- F. Shay: American Sea Songs and Chanteys (New York, 1948)
- W.M. Doerflinger: Shantymen and Shantyboys (New York, 1951/R1961 as Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman/R)
- M.D. Hay, ed.: Landsman Hay: Memoirs of Robert Hay, 1789–1847 (London, 1953)
- S. Hugill: Shanties from the Seven Seas (London, 1961, 3/1979)
- F.P. Harlow: Chanteying Aboard American Ships (Barre, MA, 1962)
- A.L. Lloyd: Folk Song in England (London, 1967)
- S. Hugill: Shanties and Sailors’ Songs (London, 1969)
- M. Yates: “‘The Best Bar in the Capstan”: William Bolton, Sailor and Chantyman’, Traditional Music, no.7 (1977), 10–11
- J. O'Brien: ‘The Perring chanties, SMA, 14 (1980), 104–121
- R. Palmer: ‘Songs of a Shantyman’, English Dance and Song, 42/2 (1980), 2–5 [on J. Robinson]
- E. MacColl and P. Seeger, eds.: Shellback: Reminiscences of Ben Bright, Mariner (Oxford, c1980)
- R. Palmer: ‘Cruising with Carpenter’, English Dance and Song, 47/2 (1985), 14–16
- R. Palmer: The Oxford Book of Sea Songs (Oxford, 1986)
- F. Sellors: ‘William Bolton’, English Dance and Song, 48/1 (1986), 30–33
- T.L. Kinsey: Songs of the Sea (London, 1989)
- M. Dawney: ‘The 50th Anniversary of the Sea-Song Collector Sir Richard Terry’, English Dance and Song, 50/1 (1988), 12
- R. Kerridge: ‘Blow the Man Down’, English Dance and Song, 53/1 (1991), 20 [on S. Hugill]
- G.H. Haswell: Ten Shanties Sung on the Australian Run (1879) (Mount Hawthorn, 1992)
- R. Palmer: ‘Masefield and the Chantyman’, Journal of the John Masefield Society, 2 (1993), 5–10
- R.Y. Walser: ‘“Here we come home in a leaky ship!”: The Shanty collection of James Madison Carpenter’, Folk Music Journal, 7/4 (1988), 471–495
- Blow, Boys, Blow, perf. E. MacColl and A.L. Lloyd, Transatlantic Records XTRA 1052 (1967)
- Shanties of the Seven Seas, rec. 1961, perf. S. Hugill, Folktracks 035 (1975)
- Bristol Shanteyman, perf. S. Slade, Folktracks 30–207 (c1975)
- The Shanty Men, various pfmrs, Greenwich Village Records GVR 201 (1978)
- Sea Songs and Shanties, rec. 1961, perf. P. Walsh, Folktracks 60-206 (c1979)
- Sailing Days: Shanties and Sea Songs of the Mersey Shanteyman, perf. S. Hugill with Stormalong John, Veteran Tapes VT 127 (1993)
- Chants de Marins, iv: Ballades, Complaintes et Shanties des Matelots Anglais, various pfmrs, Chasse-Marée SCM 005 (n.d.) [in Eng.]
- Chants des Marins Anglais, perf. S. Hugill with Stormalong John, Chasse-Marée SCM 021 DDD (1994) [in Eng.]
- Sea Shanties and Sailor Songs, perf. the Shanty Crew, Brewhouse Music BHCD 9601 (1996)
- Shanty Man, perf. S. Hugill and Stormalong John, Spinnaker Records (n.d.)