History Undusted: The Dying Art of Sailors’ Shanties

Because the days of Sail are mostly long gone except for re-enactment vessels and small private vessels such as yachts, a great tradition is being lost to the winds of time:  The Sea Shanty.  Shanties were songs sung by sailors; they were sung not only for the entertainment factor, but the rhythms kept the crews in time as they hauled in anchors, drew up sails, tightened ropes, scrubbed the deck, and any number of other duties aboard their ship.  Specific shanties were used for the short haul, the Halyard, Windlass, Capstan, or the Foresheet, because those shanties had the best rhythm to get a particular job done.  Musicians try to keep the songs alive today, but they are a ghost of what they once were, and what they once meant and represented; they were the life blood of any Ship of the Line.

For sheet music, check out The Shanty Book, Part I, Sailor Shanties, by Richard Runiciman Terry.

For an interesting article on shanties, including various video clips with live performances to hear the rhythms and flavour of the shanties, please click here.  Take a few moments to enjoy the songs!  Some of the videos are the songs sung to a series of historical images to do with sailing, so they’re a two fer!

Originally posted on History Undusted, 20 September 2015

13 Comments

Filed under Articles, Etymology, History, History Undusted, Links to External Articles, Military History, Snapshots in History

13 responses to “History Undusted: The Dying Art of Sailors’ Shanties

  1. I hadn’t heard of the term sea shanty. I looked up Dead Man’s Chest on Wikipedia, and the sources are divided as to whether it fits the category.

  2. Shanties were specifically the songs used to accomplish work aboard ship; there were other songs they sang in their free time, but given the distance of time, it’s understandable that the lines between the two sometimes get blurred. That specific song was a fictional song that appeared in Robert Louis Steven’s “Treasure Island” novel. I wrote a few shanties myself, which appear in my novel, “Asunder”…

  3. I haven’t thought of sea shanties in a long time. I studied music in college, and I think these songs were mentioned. I always enjoy the various things you write about.

  4. The link to look and listen didn’t come through. “here” was underlined, but not in blue, and would not click over. Sorry; I’d really like to hear the tunes.

  5. My mistake. When I returned to the original article, the link worked. Good clean fun! Thanks for reposting.

  6. I studied music in university, too – what was your emphasis? Mine, vocals & jazz guitar.

  7. Try it again online; the first upload, WP removed some of the hyperlinks. I always check, and update them…

  8. Music education with piano performance was my emphasis. I found out I was allergic to children, at least classes of children in school, so I didn’t teach music. A Julliard student taught me the basics of playing the organ so that I could sub for him if there were a transit strike in NY. There was never a strike in that period, but I became the permanent substitute at our church after we moved to Long Island. Soon I was the only one willing to do the job and was the organist/choir director for 25 years. It’s interesting that both you and I have been involved in music and writing. I’m retired now, but I’ve started playing the piano again for fun. Are you still involved in music?

  9. I’ve been teaching vocals for more decades than should be legal at my age. 😉 I’ve done several album collabs, including 2 of my husband’s (you can listen to them, though Swiss German, on Spotify, under Stef Huesler (Husler with an umlaut). I lost my vocal strength in 2018 when I had thyroid tumours and they stretched my vocal cords out before we could get them removed. It’s frustrating, but I can sing quietly stably again, which is something at least… I’m a vocal coach and band coach still. Guitar runs on muscle memory, but I haven’t played in a while – so many activities, so little time!

  10. I’m sorry to hear about your voice. I’ve lost half my range, so I don’t sing in the choir any more. I didn’t know guitar runs on muscle memory. Playing doesn’t happen naturally when you pick up a guitar?? I totally agree with your last sentence — so little time. Lack of time is frustrating.

  11. Like anything I’ve done a lot of, guitar playing comes naturally if I don’t stop to think about what my fingers are doing – aka, muscle memory. 😉

  12. That’s great! I thought you meant it no longer came easily.

    I’ve noticed an odd thing. I can get up from the computer and sit at the piano, transitioning easily. However, if I play the piano and immediately come back to the computer keyboard, my fingers hesitate. Sometimes I have to think what finger to use for letters. I’ve played the piano about ten years longer than I’ve typed.

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