Sea Shanties, ye addlepate bilge suckers.

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Sea Shanties, ye addlepate bilge suckers.


So, I had the blues one night.   Rather, I was delving into the origins of the blues.  A common element is "call and response", and can be traced to West African work songs, but also Sea Shanties.   It strikes me that call and response songs are probably common to all cultures that had to co-ordinate work amoung a group.

The Blues is all about cultural appropriation.  Maybe the overseers of slaves, having a maritime background, used the shanties to coordinate work by slaves, and African Americans adopted it, mixed it with thier traditions, transforming it into the blues that skinny English kids wanted to play so bad and usually did, many years later.  I'm not sure there's a way of finding out, for sure. 

But, shanties are about work, and many of us here are working class, so it's something we should know about.


Uninterestingly enough, there are types of Shanties, different tunes for different types of work.


There was the long haul or halyard shanty, for work that was long in duration.  And example would be "blow the man down."   A good version of which I could not find on youtube.  Perhaps an example of this is "Blood Red Roses", by Sting, no less:


Here's a good example of a short haul,  Haul Away Joe:

Instinctively, you know when to pull, don't you?


But hauling wasn't the only job on a ship.  There was also raising the anchor with a capstan, and here's the shanty for that:   (ignore the cheesy anime)


Of course, we're familiar with "What do we do with a drunken Sailor?"   Which was a stamp and go shanty, for large crews and long work.


And if ye didn't know enough to pull on "way hey up she rises"  I'd feed ya to the sharks.


There were pumping songs, of course.  Probably the most famous of which is "Barnicle Bill the Sailor", and it's progenitor, "Bollocky Bill the Sailor".  There are no rude enough versions available on youtube to make it worth posting here.   The hell with you tube, we won't get screwed, said bollocky Bill the Sailor.


Lastly ye lubbers are probably familiar with Quint's musical lament in "Jaws".  This wasn't a work song, per se, but a f'c's'le song, sung for recreation off watch.  I chose this one, not because it has fine polished harmonies, but because it doesn't.  Just a bunch of guys, singing.

Farewell and adieu, my fine babble ladies.







Sorry, Tommy, I don't have the links at my fingertips, but you should be able to dig up lots of stuff on the following:

Cyril Tawney: ex-RN, author of many shanties in both traditional and non-traditional styles. A compassionate but unsparing observer, as in "The Drunken Sailor": "Observe the vomit-laden shoes, the legacy of lavish booze, a mixture of assorted stews, as  he stands in the doorway."

Tom Lewis: used to be a submariner in the RN, now lives in BC, and occasionally tours Ontario. A great raconteur with a voice that could be heard unamplified sailing into the teeth of a gale off the Horn. He sings both traditional songs and his own very fine work.

William Pint and Felicia Dale: live (still I think) in Seattle. Haven't heard much of their stuff, but what I have is choice, to quote Spencer Tracy. They have a tribute to the Norwegian oystermen Harbo and Samuelsson (first to row across the Atlantic) which is both rousing and moving, and they do a version of the Breton shanty" Roulez, jolis gens, roulez" which has a relentless forward drive. Makes you want to sign on with Olivier le Bras Fort and terrorize la Manche.

Good thing I'm pseudonymous here. An interest in sea shanties is a career and romance-killer equivalent to letting on that you're translating the Aeneid into Romulan.

Oh, and many years ago, Leonard Warren of the Metropolitan Opera did an LP half of Bel Canto classics and half of sea shanties. Even if you don't like the operatic style, this is a fantastic disc: he sings with such verve and rhythmic brio you can't believe he's classically trained. (Heh-heh-heh.) I hope someone has reissued it on CD and it's not languishing, as Clyde Gilmour used to say, in cut-out limbo.


Good thing I'm pseudonymous here. An interest in sea shanties is a career and romance-killer equivalent to letting on that you're translating the Aeneid into Romulan.


that made me schnort with laughter.

Thanks for the tips.


Ah, so that's what my problem is!

I am a member of the Bilge Rats, which is what Ian Bell decided the Toronto Morris Men (TFMM) should be called when singing sea shanties.

We mostly just sing.  But sometimes we wind up doing gigs.

Johnny Collins was a great shanty singer.

We have some songs from the menhaden fishery, those are a little different, later amongst other things.

The high point for deep sea shanties was at the end of the time of sail.  One strategy used to compete with steam was to short hand the boats.  With fewer crew you needed the higher effiency of the timed pull.

A friend of mine who was a skipper of one of the Toronto Brigantines said that singing was not really a good thing when pulling because he needed to have himself heard, there is a lot of rope hauling down on sailing ships to try to keep them out of trouble when the wind picks up.




From digging around, the sailor who lead the shanty was someone respected amoung the crew and officers, though it wasn't an official position or skill.   I imagine the shanty leader gained that respect in part for knowing when it was a good time for a shanty, and when it wasn't-- like when the Captain had to be heard on deck, as you point out.

I came across this video while trying to find examples of West African work songs on youtube:


It put me in mind of industrial time studies. (after, of course, all the social and political issues those images stir up)   I can't find a link to information on line, but from memory, some management guy got a worker to unload a hopper car full of stone.  Instead of allowing the guy to determine his own pace and soldier the work, the time study guy had him preform to a stop watch.  The end result being the hopper car got unloaded faster.

Note how the song in the above video accomplishes the same thing.


I think you are a lucky man, jrootham, to have sung like that.  Judging by how people like to find excuses to interupt my singing, I'm guessing it's because I'm not very good.    I insist I have a two note vocal range.   Rebecca West says it's actually close to an entire octave and there's some songs I do justice to.  But that also spurred another train of speculative thought--- that guys who couldn't sing, whether they were African or German fishermen or English sailors, would probably pick a spot where their voice could carry the tune.  

The birth of harmony?





Shiver me timbers, I forgot.  

I'd appreciate if any of youse could link to other shanties, and even more, examples of West African work songs, if you know where to find them on line.


Also:  this is the correct link to a version of "Drunken Sailor"  from above.


I certainly enjoy singing like that.  OTOH I am a sub marginal singer in the group.  Key?  What is this concept key?

(Edit for spelling)



Tommy, if you are in London find "The Cuckoo's Nest", a folk club, it will lead you in the direction of shanty singers (I don't know how many there are in London).



Just had to disinter this zombie thread. On the weekend I was working at the Mill Race Festival in Galt (Cambridge, if you must). This is a festival devoted to traditional folk music of all sorts, with a broad concept of how 'tradition' evolves. Had the pleasure of hearing Ian Robb and Finest Kind sing the only extant hovercraft shanty, which the crew apparently sang as they inflated the skirts beneath the craft. You've got to love a shanty which sings of grabbing foreign booty from the duty-free at Calais. Alas, the hovercraft run in the English Channel ended in 2000, but the shanty survives. I wonder if some day we'll be singing shanties from the long-gone space shuttle.


That would be, "Blow hard, and hover"? 

Sorry to burst your bubble, but that is a Toronto written shanty.  Howard, whos last name escapes me, wrote that several years ago.  Fairly good odds he was in the audience.

He is notable for writing songs on an eclectic range of topics, with fidelity to the facts high on his list of priorities.  They are also infamous for being long.  He could use more blue pencil.



They come no better than this:

[url=]Barrett's Privateers[/url]


Well, yes.  I claim there is no bar in Canada, from the Park Plaza rooftop to the Canada House, that you can't get people to sing that chorus.

I discovered at one point that I knew all the words without trying to learn the song.

Stan never figured out Morris dancing, so when he wrote a Morris tune, of course he called it "The Idiot".