genisis of Shanty
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
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
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
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
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
However the most important investigator and
collector was the Englishman Stan Hugill
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
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
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
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
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
‘’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
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…
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
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
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
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
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
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 www.radioridderkerk.nl
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
Other helpful and interesting sites for Shanty
sheet music and lyrics for choirs are:
“Shanty Music” (firstname.lastname@example.org) by Jac.
Brugman. For sheet music from 1750 shanties and