'In the folk music world, you don't steal songs – you collect them,' says Bryn Stephens of Bristol-based shanty crew The Roaring Trowmen. These days, shanty groups might 'collect' songs from YouTube, other groups at festivals or even TikTok, but in the 20th century there were a few historians, shantymen and poets who put pen to paper (or recording device to mouth) to help us build the library of shanties we have today.


The best sea shanty collectors from history

Stan Hugill (1906-92)

Known as ‘The Last Shantyman’, Hugill hailed from Merseyside, the epicentre of England’s shanty tradition. He spent 23 years at sea, including a stint as the shantyman on the final voyage of Garthpool, Britain’s last commercial sailing ship. After retiring in 1945, he transcribed and recorded the shanties he had learnt at sea. He also penned several books on shanties, which remain a go-to resource for singers today.

Alan Lomax (1915-2002)

‘What Enrico Caruso was to singing, Alan Lomax is to musicology,’ said oral historian Studs Terkel in 1997. A staunch advocate for the protection of folk music, Lomax collected and recorded songs, particularly from the African-American music traditions. In 1935, he travelled with folklorist Mary Elizabeth Barnicle to record work songs and interview sponge fishermen on Andros Island in the Bahamas, continuing that work across the Caribbean and West Indies.


Cicely Fox Smith (1882-1954)

A leading nautical poet of the early 20th century, Cicely Fox Smith also collected shanties, publishing a book which included ‘Whiskey Johnny’ and ‘Blow the Man Down’.


Freya ParrDigital Editor and Staff Writer, BBC Music Magazine

Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.