What are Sea Shanties
In days gone by, Sea Shanties or Chanties (possibly taken from the French “chanter”) were working songs sung on ships during the age of sail. They were used to keep rhythm during work and make it more pleasant. Because these songs were used to accomplish a goal, rather then for pure entertainment, the lyrics and melody were not very sophisticated. Still, the songs were usually meaningful and told of a sailor’s life, which included backbreaking labor, abuse from their captain, other crew members, alcohol, and longing for girls and dry land.
A typical shanty had a call-and-response format. One sailor (a shantyman) would call out a verse, to which the rest of the sailors would respond in unison. The work would occur usually on the last syllable of the response or some other cue.
Their rhythms co-ordinated the efforts of many sailors hauling on lines. Much loved by modern sailors and folk musicians, they are rarely used as work songs today. This is because modern rigging doesn’t require many people to be working in the same rhythm for long periods.
Shanties can be divided, according to their use, into two classes:
(a) Hauling shanties
a “short haul” http://youtu.be/ZXNT-EiA2LU
Short-haul ( short drag, double-pull, sweating up) these shanty songs were sung when quicker, strenuous work like trimming the sails, raising the masthead, or pumping required quick, hard pulls. The task and the song were shorter in length than other types.
A halyard/long haul shanty about going around Cape Horn to whale: http://youtu.be/8WwC4fTLqog
Long-haul (long drag, single-pull, halyard) shanty songs were sung during the longer jobs, such as hauling up the yardarms. The Shantyman would sing or line out the verse while the men would rest and perhaps get a better grip. The men would sing the chorus during the long haul of the rope, or halyard. The number of pulls made during the chorus could be between one and three, depending on the weight of the sail.
(b) Windlass and Capstan.
Capstan shanties were for long, repetitive tasks requiring a sustained rhythm, but not involving working the lines. These songs are considered the most-developed of the shanties, with a smoother feel, steady, rhythm, and usually a full chorus which complements the verses.
The former class accompanied the setting of the sails, and the latter the weighing of the anchor, or ‘warping her in’ to the wharf, etc. Capstan shanties were also used for pumping ship. A few shanties were ‘interchangeable,’ i.e. they were used for both halliards ( http://youtu.be/8WwC4fTLqog) and capstan (http://youtu.be/PZfYtCLA23s).
For ‘pull-and-haul’ shanty songs, the shantyman took up his position near the workers and announced the shanty, sometimes by singing the first line. This established the tune to which they were to supply the chorus. For capstan shanties he usually did the same. He frequently sat on the capstan, but so far as we know, he would take up his position on or against the knightheads.
Another type, often not recognised as a shanty was also sung. These were known as Forecastle or ceremonial shanties and were sung in the few time of rest or recreation the sailors enjoyed, or on special occasions such as crossing the Equator, or entering port.
Here is “Leave her Johnny” by Johnny Collins, a traditional Forecastle shanty.
Just recently, we as a choir have started learning an American/Hawaiian shanty, “John Kanaka”. It is a halyard shanty and was primarily sung during sail hoisting.
Here is a modern version sung by Skinny Lister, who were doing a “knock ‘n rock” type performance in a small town, promoting their upcoming concert.
A more traditional version for those who prefer, sung here by Fisherman’s Friends of Port Isaac, Cornwall