Sea shanties have long been an important part of British musical and maritime culture, and even if that seafaring heyday is now over, groups around the country still preserve the tradition, albeit safe on dry land.
The word shanty is said to have derived from the French verb ‘chanter’, meaning ‘to sing’. Usually sung by a shanty-man and his crew, shanties often involve call-and-response phrases with strong rhythms to keep sailors in time and lighten the load of their work.
We’ve chosen some of the best sea shanties to get your teeth into. Have a listen, pop down to Cornwall, find the nearest pub, grab a pint and you’ll be able to join in with aplomb.
Best sea shanties
‘We’ll rant and we’ll roar like true British sailors’. Ah, the shy retiring Brits. This tune describes a voyage from Spain to England, with sailors trying to gauge how far they are from home. A difficult task, thanks to the awkward location of landmarks on the way – and perhaps a tot or two of rum.
‘Spanish Ladies’ is one of the best loved sea songs. It started life as a ballad in the Royal Navy, and travelled to the merchant ships. It was used as a capstan shanty, used for ‘heaving’ activities.
The lyrics in the verses track a homeward journey, with various landmarks mentioned throughout the shanty: Plymouth, Portland and Dover, to name just a few.
Spanish Ladies also forms a section of Henry Woods’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, so you will probably find this one familiar if you ever tune into the Last Night of the Proms. You’ll also have heard it if you’re a Jaws fan, as Quint sings it throughout the film.
You can find the lyrics to Spanish Ladies here
Blow the Man Down
Any cartoon lovers will already be well acquainted with this shanty: it forms the basis of the theme for SpongeBob SquarePants and also appears in the Popeye cartoons. As opposed to most of the other tunes featured in this list, this shanty doesn’t entirely revolve around raucousness, drinking and debauchery.
There’s a disagreement among historians about whether ‘Blow the Man Down’ is to do with the physical fighting that took place on ships or the savage weather conditions to which sailors were exposed. Often, the force of a big wind at sea could knock all the men to the decks.
‘Blow the Man Down’ is a well-known halyard shanty, used for hoisting sails and ‘pulling’ activities. It was particularly well used between 1840 and 1870 on packet ships. It makes reference to the infamous ‘Black Ball Line’, one of the first commercial shipping ventures between Liverpool and New York across the Atlantic ocean. It was notorious for being brutal to its crew members, and references to it crop up in many other shanties – including one called ‘The Black Ball Line’.
‘Blow the Man Down’ features the classic call-and-response chorus used in many sea shanties.
You can find the lyrics to Blow the Man Down here
Another shanty for a long journey. This one was sung on boats sailing between the ports of England and, yes, you’ve guessed it, Australia. Its relentless refrain ‘Heave away, haul away’ was used to encourage crews hauling heavy objects to and fro.
The verses are flexible and have evolved over time, but the story of the shanty has remained the same. It is an ode to the girls the sailors are leaving back home, while they also drink to the women they will meet on their travels. It’s possible that this shanty dates from the 19th century during the Australian gold rush, when trade between England and Australia was at an all-time high.
Australia doesn’t feature very prominently in sea shanty tradition, with the Atlantic trade tending to dominate the narratives. ‘South Australia’ is full of binaries: ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sailors are mentioned and the refrain mentions both ‘heaving’ and ‘hauling’. It functioned as both a shanty and a forebitter (a song performed for entertainment).
You might recognise it from the Pogues’ adaptation on their 1987 album If I Should Fall From Grace With God.
You can find the lyrics to the sea shanty South Australia here
Sloop John B
Sloop John B is a Bahamian shanty, and was well-known and loved across the seas in the 19th century. Today, you will probably recognise its ‘I want to Go Home’ refrain from The Beach Boys’ adaptation on the album Pet Sounds. Although their recording is commendable, it’s not quite got the authenticity of a bunch of bearded fellas belting it at the top of their lungs with pints in hand.
Drop of Nelson’s Blood
‘Nelson’s Blood’ became a term for rum, so the story goes, after Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. His body was preserved in a cask of spirits which was tapped and drained, so that sailors were then essentially drinking his blood for the rest of the journey. This shanty – despite its questionable glamorisation of alcoholism and objectification of women – is often sung by groups today, and is also known as ‘Roll the Old Chariot Along’.
You can find the lyrics to Drop of Nelson’s Blood here
You can find the lyrics to many more of your favourite sea shanties here