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The very jaunty history of the sea shanty

Saturday Night At Sea by George Cruikshank | Wikipedia | Public Domain

If there’s ever been a cultural phenomenon nobody could have seen coming, it’s the sudden popularity of sea shanties. Not too long ago, the only shanty anyone really knew was the one about the drunken sailor and the vexed question of what to do with him. Now, without warning, landlubbers everywhere are singing once-obscure songs like Leave Her Johnny and Soon May the Wellerman Come.

Cultural commentators have weighed in on possible reasons why shanties have become so popular on platforms like TikTok (aka, 'ShantyTok'). The New Yorker’s Amanda Petrusich has suggested that, in the grim wake of the coronavirus pandemic, shanties provide 'a brief glimpse into a different, more exciting way of life, a world of sea air and pirates and grog.'

But just what are sea shanties? Simply put, they are work songs – created to motivate sailors and help synchronise chores onboard merchant ships, way back when. This is what distinguishes shanties from the other kinds of ballads people might have sung in taverns back onshore.

The word itself is thought to derive from the French word 'chanter', or 'to sing'. In fact, it was once commonly spelt 'chanty' rather than 'shanty'. Published in 1867, writer GE Clark’s book Seven Years of a Sailor’s Life has a rousing account of how a 'cheerful chanty was roared out and heard above the howl of the gale' on board a ship sailing out of Massachusetts.

'The vessel's head was often buried in the solid seas,' Clark writes, 'and the men, soaked and sweating, yelled out hoarsely, "Paddy on the Railway" and "We're Homeward Bound" while they tugged at the brakes, and wound the long, hard cable in, inch by inch.

Although the exact origins of shanties are hazy, references to such motivational songs or chants go back a very long way. For example, a dictionary of maritime terms published in 1784 discusses the hauling-in of an anchor by the turning of a heavy device called a windlass. 'To perform this the sailor must all rise at once upon the windlass,' the book tells us. 'In which movement they are regulated by a sort of song or howl pronounced by one of their number.'

It’s been speculated that the evolution of shanties from these early, simple chants to the more elaborate melodies of the 19th Century was influenced by African culture. Links have been made with the songs of both slaves and of the Kroomen of modern-day Liberia, who worked on board Royal Navy ships and were instrumental in cracking down on the Atlantic slave trade as part of the West Africa Squadron. Writing in 1882, American journalist William L. Alden suggests that 'shanty-men' may have 'modified the melodies' of African singers to 'fit them for salt-water purposes'.

The singing of shanties died out with the advent of steamships and new machinery that altered work practices on deck. However, by the early 20th Century shanties were already being regarded with fond nostalgia by storytellers and folk revivalists. In the absence of a tool like TikTok, they published reams of lyrics, very often altered to suit a romanticised narrative of maritime culture. While all of this has meant that the lines between true sea shanties, sea ballads and other kinds of folk songs have become blurred over time, we do know there were different kinds of shanties that were used depending on the task at hand.

For example, 'halyard shanties' were sung during long, labour-intense tasks such as hoisting the sails, which would have required sailors to take deep breaths and pull on a rope. The well-known shanty Blow the Man Down is a prime example of this sub-genre of shanty. There were also 'pump shanties', which kept spirits up as sailors went about the gruelling task of pumping out sea water that regularly leaked through the wood below deck. 'Capstan shanties', meanwhile, accompanied the turning of vast winches on deck.

Fans of Soon May the Wellerman Come, one of the songs that helped kickstart the recent resurgence of interest in the form, may be disappointed to know it isn’t technically a shanty at all. It’s actually a whaling song that originated in New Zealand in the 1860s, and takes its name from the Weller Brothers, who founded a shipping company Down Under after emigrating from Britain. As Gerry Smyth, author of Sailor Song: The Shanties and Ballads of the High Seas, has pointed out, Soon May the Wellerman Come 'is a whaling ballad that people are singing in a particular way that suggests a shanty aesthetic, but it’s not a proper shanty, which is a call and response.'

This is a handy reminder of just how ambiguous the history of shanties is, being bound up with numerous cultural influences, interpretations and misinterpretations. But one thing’s for sure: the tunes are certainly maddeningly catchy. And – thanks to the wonders of a technology that 19th Century sailors could barely have imagined – they’re here to stay.