What is a sea shanty?

We explain the history of sea shanties, where the word 'shanty' comes from and where you can hear sea shanties performed today

Left to right. Fred Carter, Neville Threlfall, Peter Murphy, Francis Gill.An Australian Sea Shanty band, the ***** Firkins is entertaining crowds around the Tall Ships as they follow the sailing ships from port to port. The four crusty old seadogs from Fremantle Western Australia are pictured onboard the Polish Tall Ship,

A sea shanty is a type of ‘work song’, traditionally sung by sailors and those working on merchant boats to help them stay in time while they perform tasks together on boats.

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They often involve call-and-response techniques and phrases, so are often sung in large groups of workers. A lot of the manual labour on boats involved synchronised movements, so sea shanties were vital in ensuring everyone was moving together. On long voyages together, seamen would grow tired and bored, and sea shanties would keep them entertained.

The lyrics of sea shanties often evoke images of home, complete with ‘fair maidens’, because those working on ships would be working away for months on end.

Today, shanties are still sung by fishermen and seamen, but also performed more regularly in pubs, particularly on the southwest coast of England.

Where does the word ‘shanty’ come from?

The word ‘shanty’ is believed to come from the French word ‘chanter’ meaning ‘to sing.’

Where can you hear sea shanties performed?

As well as being sung on an ad hoc basis in coastal English pubs, you can hear sea shanties performed at festivals across the UK, including the Falmouth Sea Shanty Festival and the St Ives Shanty Shout.

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You’ll often hear the most popular sea shanties performed at these festivals, as well as adaptations and modern interpretations of traditional tunes.