A brief history of sea shanties

As the sea shanty craze sweeps the online world in early 2021, naval historian Kate Jamieson shares the evolution of these nautical songs, how they were used at sea, and some of the most famous shanties from history…

An Australian Sea Shanty band, c1988

Thanks to a viral rendition of the New Zealand whaling song ‘Wellerman’ by a postman on the social media app TikTok, the sea shanty has experienced somewhat of a revival in January 2021. For many shanty enthusiasts this has been a long time coming, but it has also drawn in record numbers of new fans.

Advertisement

What is a sea shanty?

The history of this nautical tradition spans hundreds, even thousands, of years. Whilst there aren’t too many references to shanties throughout the first half of the 18th century, we know songs about life at sea and ashore certainly existed at this time, and this is when they gained common recognition in wider society. Sailors, predominantly those on merchant vessels, used these simple songs to coordinate their actions onboard when heaving lines, setting sails, or turning the capstan (the winch used to raise the anchor).

Their recent surge in popularity can be partly attributed to the fact that a shanty is traditionally a very simple musical format, using either a call and response, or a regular beat and rhythm. This makes them catchy, and memorable. Like a shanty, social media uses a quick, concise format to tell a story, so it makes sense that an app such as TikTok, where users can take a sound and remix or duet it, and join in from all over the world, would be the place for such a musical style to reach the masses. Although plenty of shanty bands exist, these pieces were not designed to be tuneful and don’t need to be sung, as such. As a medium, the shanty is designed to be accessible to anyone, whether or not they can sing. Anyone can pick them up, anyone can tell the story and pass them on to others, without the worry of being able to carry a tune.

Famous shanties and the history of ‘Wellerman’

Some of the most famous shanties in existence actually had very specific uses onboard a ship in the age of sail. The capstan shanties, for example, were used by those working the capstan to raise the anchor. These were often more lyrical than the shanties required for heaving and keeping time, as the task at hand involved prolonged work.

Meanwhile one of the most famous shanties of all, ‘Drunken Sailor’, was a hand over hand or ‘short haul’ shanty. These usually had two or more ‘pulls’ per verse, to coincide with heaving on the line. As well as this, there were shanties for setting sails and pumping out the bilge water from the ship.

These songs were predominantly used on merchant vessels, which is part of the reason there are so many lyrics about tasks such as whaling. Though technically neither a shanty nor a work song, ‘Wellerman’ is a narrative song that uses some of the same techniques to tell the tale of an ill-fated whaling vessel. A Wellerman was an employee of the whaling company the Weller Brothers, who worked on ships supplying provisions, including “sugar and tea and rum” to vessels off the coast of New Zealand and Australia.

Sea shanties and the Royal Navy

Music has been an important aspect of life onboard ships throughout the years, on merchant voyages, whaling ships and even blockade duty in both the 18th and early 19th centuries. Although contrary to popular belief, the Royal Navy didn’t generally allow shanties as work songs.

Captain Edward Riou of the frigate HMS Amazon once wrote that “all good officers aimed to work their ship with a minimum of noise… so that when a loud and general order comes from the mouth of the Captain, every man may hear and comprehend.” Captain Thomas Louis once wrote that he strictly cautioned against noise either on deck or aloft in the yards – the horizontal spars on the masts from which the sails were set. He claimed that the officer commanding on the forecastle should be the only voice heard, in order to save the unnecessary repetition of orders.

James Gardiner of the Barfleur wrote that he had seen his ship “brought to an anchor and the sails furled like magic, without a voice being heard” except the Captain. The exception to this musical naval rule when working was the use of a fiddler or flautist when manning the capstan to weigh anchor. In fact, the famous naval officer Edward Pellew once pressed the second violinist of the Lisbon Opera,  Joseph Emidy, to play music for and entertain the crew of HMS Indefatigable. Emidy himself led an interesting life, and later went on to become the leader of the Truro Philharmonic.

The Royal Navy was not miserable, however, and plenty of ships allowed singing in the evenings once work was done both at sea and to while away the time on blockade duty. These ‘forbitter’ songs, sung at the forecastle, afore the ‘bitts’ of the ship, were generally either traditional songs, songs from theatres or even ones composed by the men themselves, such as the famous ‘Spanish Ladies’.

The story goes that ‘Spanish Ladies’ was written in around 1796, onboard HMS Nellie, gaining popularity throughout the Peninsular War when British soldiers were being transported home by sea, hence the reference of the distance from Ushant (an island off the coast of Brittany) to the Isles of Scilly. It’s thought that the lyrics discuss the fact that they were not permitted to bring home their Spanish wives and lovers. The song gained further notoriety, however, on the merchant ships of the period who then used it as a capstan shanty.

For many of us today, these are songs which tell a story of a life at sea, and the struggles faced by those working onboard – and perhaps now a way to keep up our own morale under current circumstances, as part of a community of like-minded individuals.

Kate Jamieson is a naval historian. You can find out more about her work at adventuresofkate.co.uk

Advertisement

This content was first published by HistoryExtra in 2021