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Sea shanties (singular "shanty", also spelled "chantey"; derived from the French word "chanter", 'to sing') were shipboard working song. Some speculate that shanties may have been sung as early as the 15th century though there is little evidence to support this claim. The shanties that survived to be collected and preserved date from the 19th century through the days of steam ships in the first half of the 20th century.

Nature of the songs

In the days when human muscles were the only power source available aboard ship, sea shanties served a practical purpose: the rhythm of the song served to synchronize the movements of the sailors as they toiled at repetitive tasks. They also served a social purpose: singing and listening to songs is pleasant; it alleviates boredom and lightens the burden of hard work, of which there was no shortage on long voyages in those days.

Most shanties are "call and response" songs, with one voice (the shantyman) singing the line and the chorus of sailors bellowing the response (compare military cadence calls). For example, the shanty "Boney":

Shantyman: Boney was a warrior,

All: Way, hey, ya!

Shantyman: A warrior and a tarrier,

All: Jean-François!

Working it as a short-drag or sheet chantey (see below), hands on the line would synchronize their pulls with the last syllable of each response.

Musically, shanties seem to reflect a variety of sources. "Spanish Ladies" is a perfect galliard (popular around 1600), songs like "Fire Marengo" look like West African work-songs, others are adapted "folk" songs or 19th century polkas and waltzes. Lyrically, like the blues, shanties often exhibit a string of stock verses without much explicit, continuous theme.


Shanties (also spelled Chantey) may be divided into several rough categories:
  • Long-haul (also called "halyard" or "long-drag") shanties: Sung when a job of hauling on a line was expected to last a long time, hoisting topsails, for example. Usually there are two pulls per chorus as in Way, hey, Blow the man down! Examples: "Hanging Johnny", "Blow the Man Down."
  • Short-drag (also called "short-haul", or "sheet") shanties: Sung when a job of hauling on a line was expected to be quick but required great force. These are characterized by one strong pull in each chorus as in "Way, haul away, haul away Joe!". Examples: "Boney", and "Haul on the Bowline."
  • Capstan Shanties: Raising the anchor on a ship involved winding the rope along a giant winch, turned by sailors walking around it. Capstan shanties are anchor-raising shanties. They are typically more "smooth" sounding than other types (no pulling required) and, unlike many other types of shanties, frequently have a full chorus in addition to the call-and-response verses. Examples: "Santianna", "Paddy Lay Back", "Rio Grande", "South Australia", "John Brown's Body" (adapted from Army marching song).
  • Stamp-'n'-Go Shanties: were used only on ships with large crews. Many hands would take hold of a line with their backs to the fall (where the line reaches the deck from aloft) and march away along the deck singing and stamping out the rhythm. Alternatively, with a larger number of men, they would create a loop -- marching along with the line, letting go at the 'end' of the loop and marching back to the 'top' of the loop to take hold again for another trip. These songs tend to have longer choruses similar to capstan shanties. Examples: "Drunken Sailor", "Roll the Old Chariot". Stan Hugill, in his Shanties from the Seven Seas writes: "(Drunken Sailor) is a typical example of the stamp-'n'-go song or walkaway or runaway shanty, and was the only type of work-song allowed in the King's Navee (sic). It was popular in ships with big crews when at halyards; the crowd would seize the fall and stamp the sail up. Sometimes when hauling a heavy boat up the falls would be 'married' and both hauled on at the same time as the hands stamped away singing this rousing tune."
  • Pumping Shanties: All wooden ships leak somewhat. There was a special hold (cargo area) in the ships where the leaked-in water (the bilge) would collect: the bilge hold. The bilge water had to be pumped out frequently; on period ships this was done with a two-man pump. Many pumping shanties were also used as capstan shanties, and vice versa, particularly after the adoption of the Downton pump which used a capstan rather than pump handles moved up and down. Examples include: "Strike The Bell", "Shallow Brown", "Barnacle Bill the Sailor", "Lowlands".
19th century sailors singing fo'c's'le songs while off duty.
  • Fo'c's'le (Forecastle) Songs, Fo'castle Shanty (Chantey) or Forebitters: Shanties (Chanteys) are worksongs and were sung only for work. However, sailors also sang for pleasure in the fo'c's'le where they slept or, in fine weather, gathered near the fore bitts (large posts on the foredeck). Examples include "Spanish Ladies" and "Rolling Down to Old Maui". While songs with maritime themes were sung, sea songs were not the only sort sung off watch.
  • Menhaden Shanties: These are worksongs used on menhaden fishing boats, sung while pulling up the nets. Typical examples are "The Johnson Girls" and "Won't You Help Me to Raise 'Em Boys".

The above categories are not absolute. Sailors could (and did) take a song from one category and, with necessary alterations to the rhythm, use it for a different task. The only rule almost always followed was that songs that spoke of returning home were only sung on the homeward leg, and songs that sang of the joys of voyaging etc., were only sung on the outward leg. Other songs were very specific. "Poor Old Man" (also known as "Poor Old Horse" or "The Dead Horse") was sung once the sailors had worked off their advance (the "horse") a month or so into the voyage. "Leave Her, Johnny Leave Her" (also known as "Time for Us to Leave Her") was only sung during the last round of pumping the ship dry once it was tied up in port, prior to leaving the ship at the end of the voyage.

The shantyman

The shantyman was a sailor who led the others in singing. He was usually self-appointed. A sailor would not generally sign on as a shantyman per se, but took on the role in addition to their other tasks on the ship. Nevertheless, sailors reputed to be good shantymen were valuable and respected.

Performance of shanties

Historically, shanties were usually not sung ashore. Today, they are performed as popular music. Shanty choirs, often large choral groups that perform only sea shanties, are popular in Europe, particularly Polandmarker and the Netherlandsmarker, but also countries such as Germanymarker and Norwaymarker. In English-speaking countries, sea shanties are comparatively less popular as a separate genre and tend to be performed by smaller groups as folk music rather than in a choral style. They are also sung by some folk music clubs as a social pastime, not for performance. A medley of sea shanties performed by classical orchestra, Sir Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea Songs, is a popular component of the Last Night of the Proms in Britainmarker. In a completely different style, "Frigging in the Rigging" was recorded by the Sex Pistols.

Although the "days of the tall ships" are over, the shanty song style is still used for new musical compositions. Well known examples include the Stan Rogers song, "Barrett's Privateers," the Steve Goodman song, "Lincoln Park Pirates," and the theme song for the television show SpongeBob SquarePants (a version of "Blow the Man Down"). Even the song "Reise, Reise" by the Neue Deutsche Härte band Rammstein is based on a shanty, "Reise, Reise". The Mariner's Revenge Song by The Decemberists is also said to be in a sea shanty style.

Literary references to sea shanties

I soon got used to this singing; for the sailors never touched a rope without it.
Sometimes, when no one happened to strike up, and the pulling, whatever it might be, did not seem to be getting forward very well, the mate would always say, "Come, men, can't any of you sing?
Sing now, and raise the dead."
And then some one of them would begin, and if every man's arms were as much relieved as mine by the song, and he could pull as much better as I did, with such a cheering accompaniment, I am sure the song was well worth the breath expended on it.
It is a great thing in a sailor to know how to sing well, for he gets a great name by it from the officers, and a good deal of popularity among his shipmates.
Some sea-captains, before shipping a man, always ask him whether he can sing out at a rope.
(Herman Melville, Redburn: His First Voyage, 1849)

A song is as necessary to sailors as the drum and fifemarker to a soldier.
They must pull together as soldiers must step in time, and they can't pull in time, or pull with a will, without it.
Many a time, when a thing goes heavy, with one fellow yo-ho-ing, a lively song, like "Heave, to the girls!"
"Nancy O!"
"Jack Crosstree," "Cheerly, men," &c., has put life and strength into every arm.
We found a great difference in the effect of the various songs in driving in the hides.
Two or three songs would be tried, one after the other, with no effect,-- not an inch could be got upon the tackle; when a new song, struck up, seemed to hit the humor of the moment, and drove the tackles "two blocks" at once.
"Heave round hearty!"
"Captain gone ashore!"
"Dandy ship and a dandy crew," and the like, might do for common pulls, but on an emergency, when we wanted a heavy, "raise-the-dead pull," which should start the beams of the ship, there was nothing like "Time for us to go!"
"Round the corner," "Tally high ho! you know," or "Hurrah! hurrah! my hearty bullies!"
(Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Two Years Before the Mast, 1840)

There is some suggestion that the Provençal song by the Comtessa de Dia titled "A Chantar M'er" may be a title pun on the French for a Sea Shanty. The troubadour punning text suggests piracy is afoot.

Fifteen men on the dead man's chest is the first verse of the chorus of a fictional sea shanty from Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Treasure Island (1883).


  • Download recording — "High Barbaree," as performed by Bounding Main. This rendition adapts a traditional sea shanty to a modern style. Maritime and battle sound effects are added to enhance the story of the battle with Barbary Pirates.
  • YouTube video -- "South Australia" as performed by "Fisherman’s Friends," the Port Isaac Sea Shanty Singers.
  • YouTube video -- "Hourra les filles à cinq deniers," a French shanty as performed by The NexTradition.
  • YouTube video -- "Won't You Help Me to Raise Um," a menhaden shanty as performed by The Northern Neck Shanty Singers.

Sea shanty and sea music performers

"Traditional" performers

"Pirate rock" performers

  • Captain Bogg and Salty, a pirate-themed rock band which performs many traditional shanties, as well as writing several of their own.
  • Sforzando, Australian "psych-folk pirate punk" band.
  • Alestorm, a Scottish "pirate metal" band.


  • Johnny Depp reportedly developed an interest in sea shanties while filming Pirates of the Caribbean. As a result, in 2006 he helped facilitate Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys, an album of informal recordings of variable quality, primarily by performers not known for prior interest in or knowledge of sea shanties. According to the liner notes, the producer, Hal Willner, knew nothing of sea shanties before beginning the project. However, some performers on the album, such as Sting, did have a prior interest.


  • Doerflinger, William Main, Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman. Mayerbooks, Glenwood, 1990.
  • Harlow, Frederick Pease, Chanteying Aboard American Ships. Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic. 2004.
  • Hugill, Stan, Shanties and Sailor's Songs. Frederick A. Praeger, New York, 1969
  • Hugill, Stan, Shanties from the Seven Seas. Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic, 1994.
  • Proctor, David, Music of the Sea. HMSO, London, 1992.
  • Davids, C. A., & Aalbers, B. H. Wat lijdt den zeeman al verdriet: het Nederlandse zeemanslied in de zeiltijd, 1600-1900. The Hague, 1980.

Both Stan Hugill and Frank Shay have written extensively on sea shanties.

External links

Sea shanties in general:

Annual sea music festivals:
  • The Bitter End contains a comprehensive list of forthcoming festivals across the world.

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