This page hardly aims to be a complete collection of sea chanteys or an authoritative text on their history and setting. I do want to pass on some of the background information that made chanteys more understandable, and therefore even richer and more enjoyable, for me. What does "John come down the backstay" mean? Where is "Hilo", "Valparaisa round Cape Horn"", "the leeward side"? Who is this "Bully in the alley"?
In spite of the title of some of the books cited, I stick to the spelling of "chanteys". It is my understanding that the spelling "shanty" came from an association between the work songs of sailors and other work songs, including field work songs -- a natural association, and many of the songs did go back and forth from ship to shore. But the association with the "chant" is far stronger, to me, than the association with the field workers shanty shack. The pronunciation remains "sh" in both spellings. Stan Hugill lists half a dozen theorized origins of the term "shanty" ""chanty" or "chantey" and ends up weighing toward the derivation from "chant" -- which in the form "chaunt" was often used to designate field-worker songs in the southern U.S.
The form of the chantey is usually a verse containing one or two "call and response" lines, with a chorus between verses. The form made the chanteys easily memorable and easily paced to the beat of the work being done.
Almost all of the authoritative texts divide chanteys into several classes: those used for jobs where there were many short movements, like pumping; those used for jobs with long steady movements, like hauling the great sails up the long masts; those sung when resting and relaxing; those sung out on deep water; those sung pulling into port and docking. Some of the books state very strongly that the songs for one job would never ever be sung while doing another. Yet I have noticed that what one book called a short-pull chanty another book would call a long-pull chanty, or what one book called a song for singing at rest another book had sailors sing while pulling up the anchor. I have also heard singing groups do similar songs, but one at slow speed and another in "jig time". I rather suspect that the original singers sang whatever song they liked, at the tempo that fitted the work of the moment.
Enough talking. On with the songs.
A Teaching song: The Sailor's Alphabet
Sailors Choice Nautical Terms Index
A List of Sailing Ships from The Lady Washington's List of Links
One of the first jobs in pulling out to sea was hauling up the anchor -- also called "heaving" or "weighing" the anchor. In the earlier sailing days this was done by windlass, sort of a barrel on a spit with holes all around it. The sailors stuck wooden staves (called "manspikes") into the barrel, hauled it down a turn, took the stave out and stuck it in again, hauled it down ... A long, long series of short, hard pulls. Sometimes, if the ship had been in port for long and the anchor was sunk in the silt, you had to "rock and roll" the windlass to work the anchor loose. And you thought rock and roll was new, didn't you?
I initially called the windlass staves "pawls". Hank Cramer corrected me, informing me that a "pawl" is "the tooth or catch in the gears that keeps the windlass (or capstan) from going backwards. (Your Sears ratchet has a little one inside, and it's reversible...)" I don't actually have a Sears ratchet, but I think I know what he means...
Some of the chanteys applicable to working the windlass were:
Later, the capstan was developed. This was a great wheel that went around horizontally, with fixed staves; each man took a bar (called, mysteriously enough, "capstan bars") and plodded around the capstan like a draft animal, winding up the anchor. This lent itself to slightly longer, slower rhythms, like:
A very sketchy history of ships: The first large cargo ships were the early packetships like the Cambridge, blocky and heavy. They muscled themselves through the waves. Later packetships, like the Isaac Webb, became sleeker and more graceful; they were built by the same folks who later created the clippers. The clippers are the ships that show up in most romantic renditions of the sailing days.
There were more than cargo ships on the waters: there were also whalers. Whaling has lost most of its romance in these more environmentally conscious days, but it is a part of our history -- and so are its songs.
There are two main kinds of cargo carrying sailing ship. The schooners were rigged in such a way that the sails went up, came down and turned into the wind all together, and could be handled by fewer crew.
The brigantines, large full-sailed vessels, had more and larger sails, and were rigged so that each section of sail must be furled, unfurled and tacked (angled in direction to the wind) separately. This gave the ship more power, but also meant more work on the part of a larger crew.
Songs usually used for "short-haul" or "double-pull" work (two short hard pulls at a time, as in windlass or pumping work, raising a sail a short distance, or the last short distance up a long mast).
Songs most often used as "halyard chanteys", also called "single pull" or "long haul" chanteys, jobs with a longer beat to the pace.
Other songs sung pulling out -- and sometimes pulling in. At both times there was much rapid winding and unwinding of ropes, stowing away one set of gear and bringing out another.
On wooden ships, you had to pump long and often. Almost any "short-haul" chanty could be used for pumping, a job where two men sawed back and forth on a pumper. But there are a couple of songs that I have only heard associated with pumping: one was created for it.
The ships didn't go to sea just to sail around. They were carrying cargo, and for most of cargo history the crews weren't unionized -- sailors also did stevedore work.
The songs for loading and unloading cargo are a lot like any short-haul songs. They also often show, more than in any other group of sea songs, the fieldworker influences. "Tote that barge and lift that bale."
Occasionally even sailors got to rest. And they enjoyed singing even while resting. Some of the songs they sung at work they also sung to entertain themselves; some were particularly for "the forecastle", off-duty time.
Some songs were most often sung when out on deep water, far from home and starting to feel it -- in several different ways.
Other songs came out when the ship had turned finally for home.
There were songs especially adapted to the tempo of docking -- and to the beautiful melancholy of leaving the ship behind.
This song may very well have been sung at sea, but I have never run across it in a sea chantey collection. It may be non-traditional, but it certainly describes a traditional situation. Sailor comes ashore after a long sea voyage. Having not had any chance to spend his wages while at sea, sailor has a lot of money. Sailor proceeds to make up for all the chances he missed while at sea. Money now gone, sailor ships out again to make some more.
Other songs related to sea chanteys:
If you like parodies
Some parodies by myself:
Links to Ship Lore, Sailing History, Tunes & Lyrics, and ChanteymenWhy my links open in a new window: I got complaints about visitors getting lost. This way you can close the other window when you've finished with it and find yourself back here, to explore another link. This doesn't include internal links (links on this site) and webrings.
For more about ships:
For more sailing history:
For more songs:
To locate chantey singers:
If you like to sing chanteys:
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I welcome any lyrics, midis, graphics, links or additional information. I will only post items however, if they are clearly in the public domain (like traditional lyrics) or are accompanied by written permission by their originator (such as graphics offered freely by their creator).