How did sea shanties originate?

It is most likely that the majority of songs sung by sailors did not originate on board but on land. They were ballads that had been learnt in youth and been adapted by sailors to accompany their work. Separate sea-songs, particularly those accompanying work, stretch back further than records of what the songs were can trace. But if a beginning is hard to chronicle, Captain WB Whall (1837-c1925) – an ordinand studying music with Sir John Stainer in Oxford, who changed his mind and went to sea – saw the end of a sea-song tradition as steam took over. Among his earliest shipmates were some who had fought on ships before what they described as ‘the Peace’ (1815). Captain Whall lamented, in the first edition of his Sea Songs and Shanties (1910), that ‘since 1872, I have not heard a Shanty or Song worth the name. Steam spoilt them.’ Sea shanties that can be identified and dated had a short recorded lifespan, although it is tantalising to wonder exactly what the sailors sang aboard Drake’s Golden Hind or Columbus’s Santa Maria.


Where did the word shanty come from?

The generic name for sailors’ songs is ‘shanty’, though no one can say where this term came from, or precisely what it refers to. It seems the English word ‘shanty’, by one means or another came from the French word ‘chaunter’, or ‘chauntez’, to sing. Some argue the origin was Old English ‘chaunt’, as in ‘sing we and chaunt it’, but since the Old English originated as a Norman word it rather splits hairs to decide between which side of the Channel the word originated. What is certain is that sea shanties were work-songs ‘composed’ to accompany the heavy, repetitive chores that needed doing on-board ships, such as raising or lowering the anchor. It is likely that this split shanties off from the ballads sailors remembered from shore leave, which they sang for relaxation in their infrequent rest periods. Shanties, with their steady beat and team effort, were to facilitate work; they may also have taken men’s minds off the gruelling task in hand.

How old are sea shanties?

If scholars cannot agree about where the word shanty comes from, they are in even less agreement about where the first shanties were heard. Some suggest that they originated in the Caribbean coastal ports of Alabama where black and white sailors met to drink. Others trace the origins further west and north to the French explorers and traders on the great rivers of America that flow into the Gulf of Mexico. Some have looked much further away to Australia and the coincidence of the word ‘shanty’ meaning a public house. But there are older references even than these. In 1493 a Dominican friar, Felix Fabri, left an account of his journey to Palestine: ‘There are [some] called mariners who sing when work is going on, because work at sea is heavy, and is only carried on by a concert between one who sings out orders and the labourers who sing in response.’ He goes on to explain that these men stood by as others did the work. Often being older and respected their task was to encourage their younger shipmates.

A little later than Fabri there is mention of sailors’ work songs in English literature. Once again the pattern is the same. A leading man sings a verse, or a line, and the chorus sings a response. Some suggest that the verbal response of the ‘chorus’ of workers might have begun as a meaningless shout such as ‘Heisa, heisa’, or ‘Varya, varya’, which may originally have been the sort of sound a sailor might have made while heaving on a massive rope to weigh a heavy anchor, or even a word mimicking birds or the whistling of the wind in the sails. Wagner was probably more accurate than he intended when he
made his sailors sing ‘Husasahe!’ in Act III of Flying Dutchman.

When were sea shanties first written down and published?

By the middle of the 19th century some shanties were being written down and collected in anthologies, and it is from these that most of the tunes that appear in the various ‘sea-songs’ or shanty-arrangements come. Shanties can be traced back to many locations and uses. One famous shanty is Farewell and adieu (Spanish Ladies) that was sung by Royal Naval sailors in the English Channel on their last leg home. Shenandoah on the other hand, was almost certainly a river shanty from the south of Northern America, which was adopted later by English sailors. The shanty Blow ye winds was used as a whaling shanty by American sailors in the north Atlantic off Boston and Maine. Another river shanty was Blow, (me bully) boys, blow which is the working men’s response to the leader’s question: ‘Say, was ye never down the Congo river?’. ‘Yes,’ continues the shantyman, ‘I’ve been down the Congo river.’ The wind and the dangers of dealing with heavy rigging lie behind another well-known shanty: Blow the Man Down that most probably emerged from the need for a rhythm and a command for the sailors to heave on the rigging. Two pulls accompanied the words ‘Way, hay, blow theman down’.

The simplest sea shanty is in an easy and regular 6/8 rhythm, but more complex ones are in all sorts of forms. One of the simplest is The Drunken Sailor which probably betrays its age by being in the Dorian mode, though in some places it is amended to be in a major key.

How did sea shanties inspire and influence classical music?

Once these songs became detached from their original workplace, they could enter the drawing room by way of the printed collection. Many of the instructional words must have seemed incomprehensible at first, though after a while they became quaint and as evocative of the sea as a child’s sailor suit. From these sources the sea-shanties sung before the mast in such war-torn eras as the Napoleonic wars and Nelson’s ships at Aboukir Bay and Trafalgar became a rich source of traditional music for composers’ arrangements and adaptations. One of the most famous of these was Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasy on English
, which he composed for the Proms 100 years later to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. In 1943 Sir Malcolm Arnold used three shanties for his celebrated Wind Quintet, and Paul Patterson in 1967 composed his Comedy for Five Winds for the same wind ensemble with a finale that included a (kind of) theme and variations on the Sailor’s hornpipe.

Near the end of this the flautist playing the tune gets decidedly out of synch with the rest of the ensemble: an ingenious and witty device somewhat suggestive of the excessive quantities of rum rations. Well, it would be nice to imagine so, but in fact the Sailor’s hornpipe which Sir Henry Wood also used in his Fantasia, and in which generations of Promenaders have clapped and swayed was not originally a dance but a song, Jack’s the lad.

Land-bound as most of us are, despite living on an island with a famous navy, it is sometimes disappointing to find out that the salt-sea air in many songs is just wave-top addition to a land-based tune; but that surely isn’t going to stop anyone feeling a shipboard tingle when the Sailor’s hornpipe, Blow the man down, or Shenandoah starts up. ‘No, my hearties, no!’

Why did sea shanties die out?

Sea shanties began to emerge in the early 19th century on American packet ships crossing the Atlantic. The living tradition of singing sea shanties on board packet and clipper ships began to decline around 1880 when steam-driven ships began to dominate.

The transition from a population ruled by a predominantly oral tradition to more of a literate culture meant that oral singing traditions like shanty singing fell out of practice.


You can find the lyrics to many of your favourite sea shanties here