The genisis of Shanty


A shanty is a working song and were sung on board the great sailing ships (tall ships windjammers) One of the reasons why shanties came in to being was the economic competition between faster and larger tall ships like the famous tea clippers Cutty Sark and Thermopylae and later Steamers! The work had to be done with less crew in a shorter time. So this group of sailors had to coordinate their activities, like raising the anchor, setting the sails or the monotonous work at the pumps.

A manuscript exists from the time of the English King, Henry the Sixth (1421-1471) and states about sailors singing during work. This ballad ( probably the oldest in Europe) is about a vessel with pilgrims on its way from England a.o. Bristol to the grave of Holy Jacob in Santiago the Compastella in Spain.

Besides coordinating the work rhythm the shanty had also a social function: the sailors could voice their opinion about the situations on board, like the quality of the food or the meanness of the officers. But it improved the work quality and atmosphere a board as well. Often they are four-line verses with a short solo of the shanty man (often one of the sailors) and the answer of the workers. The shanty man understood how to sing loud and clear and rhythmical refrain songs sometimes accompanied with a drum during hauling or heaving ropes, anchors, pumps or lines. (Sadly today’s we do not hear the drum very often when a shanty is sung.)
Shanties stem from the period of 1820-1920 and may have quite different origins (not only folksongs from the British Isles or other European countries but also slave songs from the Southern United States or the West Indies and France-Canadian).
Because in those times many seamen came from Ireland there is a noticeable influence from Irish folksongs. Most shanties are sung in English, sometimes in French, German or Dutch. And mostly a cappella! The crew were usually young and strong and did this heavy work on deck, rigging and yards. Dangerous work, bad weather, bitter cold and huge storms and very poor food took its toll. Roughly 60% of the sailors found a watery grave.
So-called sailors' songs were not sung at work. In the rare free time they had the sailors sat on deck and sung in these "fore-bitters" the hard life on board or the emotional ties with the mainland, for instance melancholic songs about saying farewell. These songs were often (20thcentury) accompanied by musical instruments like the banjo or the accordion. A real fore bitter is, for example ,,Sailing,,
Along the different handling of various jobs the crew sung different songs whit a characteristic rhythm.
Because not all activities took the same labour time so the Shanty man had to have a sense of humour and improvising talents. Therefore he had to invent new couplets on the spot!

These songs were often about the ladies on the dockyards and pubs, mermaids and other sailor’s dreams. But also about superstition, tragedies or great adventures.
Songs about home sickness and desire explained that a sailor at see wants be home, and once home he wants to be free at his ship.

Furthermore there were some songs of praise about special ships like warriors or fast Clippers. Due to the slowly disappearance of tall ships and upcoming steamers the shanty songs were doomed to disappear to. Many songs indeed did not survive and died with the composer/singer.

But fortunately a lot of older or former sailors in, France, Sweden, Germany, U.K. Ireland etc. wrote down their repertoire For example Chansons de Bord by the France Officer Armand Hayet (1927).

However the most important investigator and collector was the Englishman Stan Hugill (1906-1992).
He was, as far as we know, the last active Shanty man on tall ships who collected and wrote hundreds of shanties. And he wrote and published (1961) the bible for shanty singers named “Shanties from the Seven Seas” which now is a standard work of art.
In total he produced 7 maritime books, and painted over 250 pictures during his retirement years
Until his dead Hugill sung shanties in an inimitable and authentic way at maritime events all over the world.
He also gave lectures and workshops about sailors live and the way the shanties were used.

Without his investigations and all the effort it took the World of shanties would have been very different. For sure the Chairman of the Amelander Shanty Choir Jan Verbiest is our Dutch “Stan Hugill”, they were close friends. Stan Hugill also performed on the famous Workum Festival in 19??

Sadly only a few Dutch shanties have been preserved. They were found in antic books or written down by collectors of traditionals. The Netherlands lost its leading role as a maritime nation at the beginning of the 19th century due to the Napoleonistic wars.
Finally there were fewer ships and most of the time without any cargo or trade. Therefore a lot of Dutch maritime traditions and sea songs vanished.

But after the France oppression the Dutch fleet was gradually build up again.
These ships however were often manned with foreign sailors who sung mainly in English, German or France or in so called Pidgin English which prevented the creation of new Dutch shanties or sea songs.

The activities on board are more efficient and faster when there is a shanty man available. Usually a deckhand who took besides his common task the responsibility as shantyman.
A shanty man did not pull the ropes himself but stood near the pulley block. Also he did not walk around pushing the capstan spokes but sat on the centre of it.
A skilled shanty man built up an enormous repertoire during his life time. He learned the trade by his father or colleagues at sea.

The word Shanty was mentioned for the first time in a manuscript dated 1850.

There are several theories about the origin of the word. Likely the word came from the English word Chant meaning, singing, recite, collective shouting in choir.
The importance of a shanty man has been stated by Stan Hugill whose motto was
: “A good shantyman is worth four hands on the rope”.

Shanties were introduced on sailing ships during 70’s 80’s and 90’s in the 19th century. But most of the lyrics and melodies came from shore in the home countries. For example soldiers songs from the civil wars in the U.S.A. the lyrics and melodies were adapted or chanced here and there. Former slaves from the cotton fields took their working songs and spirituals along on the Mississippi boats and adapted these to the works. “Sugar in the hold” or “Ned’s lament” for example are still very well know shanties today. So almost every song does have its own history and meaning related to a certain period.

Because the crew were a mix from all over the world it so happens that many songs were sort of translated with transformations in melody and text.

Shanties can be divided roughly in to two major groups: Songs for mechanical devices such as pump and capstan. The other are sails, lines and ropes to be distinguish as “heave and haul” shanties. There are many nice capstan songs know, while working at the capstan was lengthy and exhausting. A capstan is a powerful device to lift the anchors or move the ship. The crew had to bend forward and push the spokes and walk round and round, sometimes for more than 24 hours!
‘’Rendowee’’ and ‘’The iron man’’ ( both Dutch) are well known shanties.

The hand pumps were mainly used for keeping the water out the hull, the cargo dry and the ship a floating.
Day after day they were manned by deckhands in an almost endless rhythm.
Sadly there are almost no Dutch pumping songs left. “Leave her Johnny, leave her” is a well known English pumping shanty.

A three or four mast tall ship is equipped with many different shaped sails for various purposes. All these different sizes need a special manner to tie them up or unfurl.

Because of the different purpose of the sails the shanty man used various songs.
Sometimes the crew had to pull for a longer time ( Long drag) and sometimes a few fierce pulls was enough (short drag)
The most basic shanty is in fact a yell following a command or countdown like 1,2,3 and… haul!

The crew used their imagination and made up all kind of words or phrases in variation of the usual yell. Following to this, new melodies originated. The short drag was used to set a lightweight sail, brace the yards or anything that needed a last short pull. This is called a sing out shanty.

Also for hoisting light sails is the “hand over hand” shanty.
The lines were pulled very fast.

Distinctive for shanties is their structure. The shanty mann sings one couplet solo and the crew joins in with the refrain, the shanty man follows up with an end couplet. This will continue until the job is done. The deckhand holding the end of the line shouts the last yell and the singing will stop at once.

For hoisting the mainsails the crew used halyard shanties. The halyard is the hoisting line connected to the sail. “Katreintje Boelijntje” is one of the few Dutch hoisting songs.
“Blow the man down” is a well known English halyard shanty.

There are also special songs for certain other activities on board like the Dutch shanty :Hejo” This was based on a German fisherman song ”Heho, hurra frisch nah” It was used as the nets were hauled in. When ships were unloaded or loaded there was usually a special song. One of the most remarkable Dutch songs is a so called ballast song “West Zuid West van Ameland”. After unloading the cargo the hull partly had to be filled up with sand from the shoal at low tide to keep the ship stable.

Shanty in the 21th century

At the end of the 1950s Harry Bellafonte brought back the interest for shanty worldwide with top hits like “Round the bay of Mexico” and of course “The banana boat song”

But also the book “Shanties From The Seven Seas” by Stan Hugill (1961) was a great source of inspiration for many folk groups in the 60s and 70s.
For example “Blood red roses” by Fairport Convention (Ian Matthews)

From the beginning around 1980 many Sail events were organised by big harbour cities all over the world. Millions of spectators came to see the Tall Ships in their original state with skilled crew. It boosted the popularity of Shanty singing enormous.

The archives with original shanties are almost exhausted so fortunately a lot of musicians/singer songwriters compose new song based on the historical and classic shanty structures. As a result the tradition of shanty will stay alive in spite the fact that sailors lives has changed for good.

Shanty in the Netherlands today

At the moment there are about 1200 shanty and sea-song choirs active, most of them are situated in the northern part, even in small villages. Besides there are at least 30 women’s choirs active in this field. They usually sing Fisherman songs but… from the home point of view.
Remarkable is the fact that many choirs today have a waiting list!

Last but not least we have to mention Ad van Eijk who produced and directed for more than 8 years his international special program Trossen Los (Cast off ) on Thursday evenings. Many shanty choirs have had the honour to be his guest and sometimes life on air and broadcasted worldwide! Many thanks for that Ad!!

Other helpful and interesting sites for Shanty sheet music and lyrics for choirs are:

“Shanty Music” ( by Jac. Brugman. For sheet music from 1750 shanties and sea-songs available.

(thanks to Jac.Brugman)