Shanties are tuneful, rousing songs with a pronounced beat,
sung by sailors at their work. Although records show the earliest
shanties as being well over 200 years old ('Lowlands' was
sung on Sir Walter Raleigh's ship), the most creative time
for shanty singing was between 1820 and 1850.
Shanties fall into separate categories, differing in rhythm
and timing: some long and repetitive for capstan-hauling,
others having a short, jerky delivery for hand-over-hand-hauling
or pumping, while others incorporate action words which were
shouted for the 'stamp-and-go' long-hauling.
Hand in hand with the shanty is another type of sea-song,
the forebitter. It is a simple sea-song or a ballad with a
nautical flavour, sung for entertainment during the off-watch.
On warm tropical nights the sing along would take place on
deck around the forebits, hence the name.
The selection of a shanty to accompany a particular task,
and the leading of the singing, was primarily the duty of
the shantyman. He would sing the verse and stamp or beat the
rhythm, while the crew joined in boisterously rather than
tunefully in singing the choruses and heaving and hauling
on the shouted words.
The nineteenth century was probably the most popular period
for shanty singing, for great fleets of sailing ships pursued
their business in this their heyday before steamships began
to take over.
The major happenings of the time proved the inspiration of
many of the shanties. The French wars gave rise to 'Boney
Was a Warrior' and 'Blood Red Roses'. From the American Civil
War came 'The Alabama', and Britain's Jack Tar quickly put
his own words to 'Marching Through Georgia', 'John Brown's
Body' and 'When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again'.
The 1820s until the 1850s, including the period of the Irish
Potato Famine and the great migration to America by the Irish,
saw the introduction of the Western Ocean Packets (Black Ball
Line and the Blue Cross Line recurs in a number of songs).
The emigrants and the Packet Rats were responsible for a whole
range of new songs, such as 'Liverpool Judies', 'The Liverpool
Packet', 'The Banks of Newfoundland', 'Paddy West', 'Paddy
Doyle's Boots', 'Paddy Lay Back', 'Leave Her, Johnny', 'Blow
the Man Down' and 'Can't You Dance the Polka'.
A further important period was the growth of the cotton trade
around the confluence of the Mississippi, the Ohio and Missouri
rivers and Mobile Bay. It was here that the sailors developed
the new skill of cotton 'Hoosiers', down in the holds of their
own ships. There they worked side by side with the Negroes
stowing bales of cotton, known as 'Screwing Cotton', by forcing
the bales into every corner.
Popular songs among the sailors at that time were 'Donkey
Riding', 'Shenandoah', 'Johnny Come Down to Hilo' and 'Clear
the Track, Let the Bulgine Run' which demonstrates the coexistence
of black and white sailors.
1848 saw the west coast of America opened up by the finding
of gold in Sacramento, California. No Panama Canal existed
then and everyone had to go by way of the dreaded Horn. Soon
new shanties were being sung, telling of the hardships suffered
in the tempestuous Southern Ocean and the Roaring Forties
- shanties like 'Valparaiso Round the Horn', 'Sacramento',
'The Gals around Cape Horn' and 'Good-bye Fare-ye-well'.
Australia produced it's own smaller crop of shanties due to
it's own gold rush and the wool-clippermen (flying-fish sailors),
the most famous of which is the capstan shanty 'South Australia'.
Another famous shanty 'Strike the Bell' pinched the tune from
a sheep farmers song called 'Click Go the Shears'.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1867 saw the 'damnable tin-kettles'
(steamships) taking over the China tea and the Australian
wool trades. So sadly the great sailing ship era died, and
with it faded the necessity to create new shanties.
Shanties can be said to be one of the earliest and truest
examples of folk music, setting out simply and tunefully the
hopes and aspirations of their creators, describing the important
events of the times and leaving a melancholy record of the
hardships endured by simple sailormen and their dependents
in an illustrious period in Britain's maritime history.
There are two main kinds of shanties. First are the work shanties
that are divided into short drag (short haul), long drag (halyard),
windlass, and capstan songs. Second are the forecastle or
fo'c'sle shanties. These are often ballads or tell of some
historical event, and take their name from the part of the
ship where the singing usually took place, the forecastle,
which was the crew's quarters.
Short drag or short haul shanties were for tasks that required
quick pulls over a relatively short time, such as shortening
or unfurling sails. When working in rough weather these songs
kept the sailors in a rhythm that got the job done safely
Long drag or halyard shanties were for work that required
more setup time between pulls. It was used for heavy labour
that went on for a long time, for example, raising or lowering
a heavy sail. This type of shanty gave the sailors a rest
in between the hauls, a chance to get a breath and a better
grip, and coordinated their efforts to make the most of the
groupís strength for the next pull. This type of shanty usually
has a chorus at the end of each line.
Stan Hugill aboard the schooner 'Leading Light' in 1933
Capstan (or windlass) shanties were used for long or repetitive
tasks that simply need a sustained rhythm. Raising or lowering
the anchor by winding up the heavy anchor chain was their
prime use. This winding was done by walking round and round
pushing at the capstan bars, a long and continuous effort.
These are the most developed of the work shanties.
Pumping Shanties. Pumps were fitted in ships to empty the
bilge (the lowest part of the ship) of water. Wooden ships
leaked, but not so fast that the crew could not pump the water
out. There were several different types of pumps, which accounts
for the variation in the timing of pumping shanties.
Forebitter or Forecastle Shanties. In the evening, when the
work was done, it was time to relax. Singing was a favored
method of entertainment. These songs came from places visited,
reminding the sailors of home or foreign lands. Naturally
the sailors loved to sing songs of love, adventure, pathos,
famous men, and battles. Of course after all the hard work
just plain funny songs topped their list.
Whaling Shanties. Life on a whaler was worse than on any other
type of vessel; your life might be shorter on a pirateís ship,
but the work wouldn't be so hard! Voyages typically lasted
from two to three years, and sailorís lives were filled with
unrelenting, dangerous work and the ever-present stench of
whale oil. Whalers risked maiming and death when giving chase
in small boats that were often overturned or even smashed
by the whaleís tail in the fight! Songs helped give these
men the will to go on in the face of their dreadful circumstances.
Pilot verses were sailing directions sung to popular tunes.
This was a handy way to memorise crucial navigation information.
There's a bunch of Newfoundland ones recorded in the Admiralty
Court, in London. Hugill quotes one from this collection,
dated 1756, which was apparently considered the best guide
to Newfoundland waters at the time. It's to the tune of "I'll
Tell me Ma", which is still well known.
From Bonavista to the Cabot Isles
the course is north full forty miles
When you must steer away nor'-east
till Cape Freals, Gull Isle, bears west-nor'-west
Then nor'-nor'-west thirty-three miles
three leagues off shore lies Wadham's Isles,
Where of a rock you must beware
two miles sou'-sou'-east from off Isle bears.
Origin of the word Shanty
The exact origin of the word 'shanty' is lost in the mists
of time, but a number of theories have been put forward, any
of which may be correct.
1. French "chantez" - either Norman French, Modern or 'Gumbo'
dialect of New Orleans.
2. English "chant" or Old English "chaunt"
3. The drinking Shanties (bars) of the Gulf of Mexico ports
(Mobile in particular) where black and white would congregate.
Despite the non "musical" origin of the word, many coloured
sailors went to sea from this area during the C19th and made
reputations as singers of work songs.
4. Much the same as 3. - in Australia a "shanty" is a public-house,
especially an unlicensed one (1864) and to shanty is to carouse
or get drunk. Again, during the C19th, many seagoing shanteymen
came from Australia and few people are likely to deny that
drinking and singing (and sailors!) often go together.
5. Boat songs of the old French voyageurs of the New World,
known as chansons.
6. The lumbermen's songs which often start with "Come all
ye brave shanty-boys" - a shantyman here being a lumberman
or a backwoodsman. However, it must be noted that the derivation
is given as from the French, via French-Canadian, "chantier"
- a work site or workshop, and not from "chanter" - to sing.
Therefore the connexion "workshop/lumberman" to "deep sea
shipboard songs" seems quite tenuous.
7. West Indian Negroes used to move their shanties (huts built
on stilts) by gangs pulling with a singing leader perched
on the roof - he was the shanty man.
Clear away the track (Let the Bulgine Run). Bulgine, in the
title of this old shanty, was the nickname for the little
locomotive that ran up and down the dock delivering cargo
to and from the various ships.
Nelson (1758 - 1805)
'England expects that every man will do his duty.' With these
words Nelson successfully inspired his squadron before the
Battle of Trafalgar, in 1805, during which he died. At his
death, Britain lost a complex leader who balanced a personal
longing for honour and glory with a compassion and respect
for his men.
Born in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, the sixth of 11 children,
he joined the Navy at age 12. He became a captain at age 20,
and saw service in the West Indies, Baltic and Canada. He
married Frances Nisbet in 1787 in Nevis, and returned to England
with his bride to spend the next five years on half-pay, frustrated
at not being at sea.
When Britain entered the French Revolutionary Wars in 1793,
Nelson was given command of the Agamemnon. He served in the
Mediterranean, helped capture Corsica and saw battle at Calvi
(where he lost the sight in his right eye). He would later
lose his right arm at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife
As a commander he was known for bold action, and the occasional
disregard of orders from his seniors. This defiance brought
him victories against the Spanish off Cape Vincent in 1797,
and at the Battle of Copenhagen four years later, where he
ignored orders to cease action by putting his telescope to
his blind eye and claiming he couldn't see the signal.
At the Battle of the Nile (1798), he successfully destroyed
Napoleon's fleet and bid for an overland trade route to India.
His next posting took him to Naples, where he fell in love
with Emma, Lady Hamilton. Although they remained married to
others, they considered each other soul-mates and together
had a child, Horatia, in 1801. Earlier that same year, Nelson
was promoted to Vice-Admiral.
Over the period 1794 to 1805, under Nelson's leadership, the
British Navy proved its supremacy over the French. His most
famous engagement, at Cape Trafalgar, saved Britain from threat
of invasion by Napoleon, but it would be his last. Struck
by a French sniper's bullet he died on the first day of battle,
October 21, 1805.
An important period was the growth of the cotton trade around
the confluence of the Mississippi, the Ohio and Missouri rivers
and Mobile Bay. It was here that the sailors developed the
new skill of cotton 'Hoosiers', down in the holds of their
own ships. There they worked side by side with the Negroes
stowing bales of cotton, known as 'Screwing Cotton', by forcing
the bales into every corner.
Donkey Riding is a shanty associated with loading cargo, the
"donkey" was the sailors' name for a chest containing provisions
Story of Grog
From the earliest days of sail, men needed liquid during voyages.
Water quickly developed algae and turned slimy, and beer turned
sour. The original ration of beer for seamen was a gallon
a day, a significant amount to store over a long voyage. As
the British Empire grew and longer voyages became more common,
the problem of spoilage and shortages increased.
The origin of grog lies with Vice-Admiral William Penn, father
of the founder of Pennsylvania. In 1655, during Penn's campaign
for Cromwell in the Indies, Penn arrived in Barbados and captured
Jamaica. Unfortunately Jamaica had few stores of beer or wine.
Jamaica did, however, have rum. Penn, therefore, began the
use of rum as a ration.
In the seventeenth century, an early form of rum was known
as "rumbustion." In Elizabeth I's time, privateers and pirates
traded in rum, and it was a liquor well-known to sailors.
After 1655, as the Indies became an increasingly popular port,
the use of rum increased. Although it became common, rum was
not part of the "Regulations and Instructions Relating to
His Majesty's Service at Sea" until 1731 at which time a half
a pint of rum was made equal to the provision of a gallon
of beer. In the early days this was specific only to ships
in the West Indies, and rum was not diluted.
Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon is known as the father of grog.
Vernon was a noted seaman, and victorious at Porto Bello.
He was also a constant critic of the Admiralty and a supporter
of better conditions aboard ships. He derided pressment and
advocated better treatment of sailors. His sailors gave him
the name of "Old Grog" because of a waterproof boat cloak
he wore. The boat cloak was made of grogam, a thick material
which was a combination of silk, mohair and wool. Grogam was
often stiffened with gum.
By Vernon's time straight rum was commonly issued to sailors
aboard ship - and drunkenness and lack of discipline were
common problems. On August 21, 1740, Vernon issued an order
that rum would thereafter be mixed with water. A quart of
water was mixed with a half-pint of rum on deck and in the
presence of the Lieutenant of the Watch. Sailors were given
two servings a day; one between 10 and 12 AM and the other
between 4 and 6 PM. To make it more palatable it was suggested
sugar and lime be added. In 1756 the mixture of water and
rum became part of the regulations, and the call to "Up Spirits"
sounded aboard Royal Navy ships for more than two centuries
If the use of grog was common practice, the mixture was anything
but standard. Vernon ordered a quarter of water to a half
a pint of rum (four to one), others ordered three to one,
and Admiral Keith later issued grog at five to one. The mixture
seamen used for grog was named by compass points. Due North
was pure rum and due West water alone. WNW would therefore
be one third rum and two thirds water, NW half and half, etc.
If a seaman had two "nor-westers," he'd had two glasses of
half rum and half water.
Rum aquired the nickname "Nelson's Blood" after Trafalgar
(1805). Legend has it that Lord Nelson's body was placed in
a barrel of rum for preservation, when the sailor's learned
of this, they drank the rum. From that time on, grog was also
known as "Nelson's Blood". (In fact it was a barrel of brandy.)
Dilution of rum into grog did not solve the problem of lack
of discipline. In 1823 the Admiralty conducted an experiment
cutting the daily rum ration in half, to one quarter pint
(gill). In compensation they issued tea and cocoa, increased
pay two shillings a month. In 1824 the experiment became permanent
with the added bonus of an increased meat ration. However,
as a gill at that time was equal to four double whiskies today,
it was still a very strong mix.
the man down
Between 1850 and the early 1900's, the fastest clipper ships
were the Black Ballers, plying between Liverpool and New York.
The westbound voyage was usually 4 weeks against the wind
and the returning eastern voyage was about 3 weeks, going
with the winds. And the more quickly a ship returned to homeport,
the quicker a sailor would get paid. A position aboard the
Black Ballers was one to be envied, however, the reputation
of the Black Baller captains was notorious, they ran a brutal
ship. When it was said that a man was blown down, it meant
that he was beaten to the ground, which was rumored to happen
often aboard the Black Ballers.
'Orpheus' of the Black Ball Line
A ship would dock and the sailors go on shore where they would
spend all their wages long before it was time for the ship
to leave. This was somewhat depressing, since most of the
"attractions" of the port would not take credit...and so the
custom of "drawing on a dead horse'', or drawing a month's
wages in advance, came into being.
Unfortunately, this leads to an equally depressing payday
a month later, where your shipmates are getting paid, and
A ritual developed around the "death'' of the debt. The ship's
sailmaker would use the materials at hand to build an effigy
of a horse, and at dusk a solemn candlelight procession would
form on deck.
The Dead Horse ritual on board a modern American sail training
The horse would be paraded around the ship three times, and
then hoisted on a rope to the topmost yardarm. There, the
youngest member of the crew would cut the rope on cue, dropping
the horse into the sea.
The traditional three-cheer salute was given, and the captain
would issue a ration of grog to each man.
Seafarers families had to cope with the absence of their main
wage earner for long periods of time. The sea shanty Rio Grande
sings of White Stocking Day, which was when sailorsí female
relatives dressed up in their best clothes, including white
stockings, to go and collect their allotments of money from
the various Liverpool shipping companiesí offices. In the
early 20th century the politician Eleanor Rathbone of Liverpool
criticised the traditional system of paying seamen because
of the effect which it had on seamenís families. Not all sailors
made an allotment to their wives from their pay but only drew
an advance note for themselves. Rathbone believed that wives
should automatically receive a share of their husbandsí pay
to ensure that their families were cared for.
General Zachary Taylor defeated the Mexican General Santa
Ana at Buenavista in February 1847, helping to secure Texas,
and gain California, for the United States. He became President
of the USA after the war with Mexico, but died after only
a short term in office. A.L. Lloyd thought that this shanty
probably dates from around 1850, though many of the elements
in it (the ritual funeral, the references to the semi-mythical
"Stormy" or "Stormalong"), are older.
The younger sister of Charlie Brown in the comic strip Peanuts
by Charles Schulz.
I'm sorry. If you can do any better, let me know.