Shanties: Songs of the Sea!

Nov 10 2011

Shanties/chanties, derived from the French word chanter, ‘to sing’,  are a type of work song that were once sung by sailors abroad sea vessels, particularly on larger ships. The main objective for busting out into song was not to keep the crew entertained rather it was to keep them working efficiently and in perfect harmony. The shanties’ rhythms helped the sailors coordinate their demanding and time sensitive tasks required to sail a wooden ship. The introduction of the steam-powered ship by the end of the 19th century and the fact that modern rigging does not require a number of people to be working in the same rhythm for an extended period of time, the functionality of these sea shanties ceased to be relevant. Although still loved by  sailors and folk musicians, they are rarely used as work songs today.

The lyrics and melodies of sea shanties are not very complex or sophisticated since they were created to accomplish a goal rather than be an art form. Despite their simplicity, the songs ended up convey  the realities of  being a sailors, which included backbreaking labor, abuse from both captain and crew, alcohol, and the yearning for females and terra firma.

Typically, a shanty had a call-and-response format where the shantyman would call out a verse, to which the rest of the sailors would respond in unison. The role of Shantyman was an respectable and important self appointed position taken on by a sailor in addition to other tasks aboard. The The last syllable or some other characteristic cue of the song would be the point at which the men would do their work.

Traditional sea shanties can be broadly divided into 5 categories based on the type of work they were used for :

1) Short haul shanties: were used for tasks requiring quick pulling of lines over a relatively short time.
2) Halyard/long haul shanties: were used for heavier work requiring more setup time between pulls.
3) Capstan shanties: were used for long and repetitive tasks requiring a sustained rhythm, not involving working the lines such as raising and lowering the anchor.
4) Windlass shanties: were used for the task of pumping water out of the ship (on a wooden boat leaks were the norm)
5) Foc’sle, forecastle or forebitters: named after the sailors’ nautical living quarters, this genre is not technically a shanty but a song that was  sung after the hard workday was over when the sailors would congregate to drink, sing wildly and remember better times.

These categories are by no means absolute rather they are fluid, with sailors changing the melody and rhythm of a shanty from one category to better match their work in another. The only constants seem to be that songs talking about life at sea were sung on the journey out to sea and those about returning home and dry land were sung on the way back.

Today many of these sea rhythms have come to be known as drinking songs and can typically be heard in Irish and English style pubs all around the world . The wild rover (a windlass shanty), the drunken sailor (a capstan shanty) and go to the sea once more (a fo’c’sle) are just a few examples of these once functional sea songs.

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