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Sea Shanties

The sea shanties which are so popular nowadays have altered in many ways since they originated in the early sailing ships to help the crews to work together. Every shanty had its own purpose, but modern machinery often obviates the necessity of singing shanties even in sailing ships


HAULING ON THE TOPSAIL HALYARDS was a heavy job, and the halyards were often taken to the capstan. Blow, My Bullies, Blow, was a favourite shanty used for this work. Sometimes the shanties went with such a swing that the officer of the watch had to be careful to sea that nothing aloft was carried away. This photograph was taken in the Grace Harwar (1,816 tons), built in 1839 at Port Glasgow. She is 266 ft 8 in long, with a beam of 39 ft 1 in, and a depth of 23 ft 6 in.

WITHIN recent years the shanties of the old sailing ships have become popular ashore. As they are sung in the drawing-room or concert hall, they are merely based on the old shanties and do not sound the same to the men who served in sail and used them every day of their lives.

The shanties were rarely sung for a amusement. They were working songs, designed to get the last ounce of strength from a small crew. Shanties therefore had a time and rhythm of their own, designed to give the concerted pull on the rope at the right moment. They were not ballads and cannot be made into ballads with any success. It is difficult to get the proper rhythm and time unless you have a rope to pull or a capstan bar to push.

The old favourites, Shenandoah, Blow the Man Down, Billy Boy and dozens of others, are often sung at concerts and broadcasts, to the indignation of the old sailorman. They are generally sung much too fast, for the shanty was normally used only for a hard pull, and the back-breaking weight naturally kept the time slow. Only the shanties for the jib or staysail halyards or the capstan were sung at any noticeable speed. The clink of the capstan and the creaking of blocks, with the sound of wind and water, not only helped the rhythm but also added greatly to the effect of the sea shanty.

Those who have made a close study of the subject disagree about the proper spelling of the word. Should it be shanty or chanty? In the early nineteenth century they were frequently called “shanty songs” in the Gulf cotton trade.

It is held by some authorities that the name arose because shanties were sung in the drink shanties erected on the beach when a sailing ship was loading cotton. Others maintain that the word chanty is derived from the French chanter, to sing; but the British sailor would almost certainly have pronounced that word with the “c ” hard.

The shanties were sung for amusement only when the hands were ashore. In taverns, for instance, a shanty might interest the landlubbers and persuade them to slake a sailor’s shore thirst. At the sailors’ homes in the colonies they sometimes sang a shanty as they hoisted the fattest apprentice up to the roof on a line, to everybody’s amusement. In Geraldton and many other small Australian ports frequented by sailing ships it became the custom to “shanty up the curtain” at the beginning of a theatrical performance.

Rhythm was everything in a shanty, and the words, particularly those of the chorus, were of no great importance. Most of the lines had at least a measure of rhyme, and a good shantyman, greatly prized in a ship’s company, was usually apt at improvising words to suit the occasion. Although many of the shanties that were in common use were interchangeable to a certain extent, every one had its purpose in the ship’s work. Up to a point the words of most shanties varied with every ship, and the tune with every district, although they were clearly allied and recognizable.

Some of the best known shanties were kept identical wherever they were sung. John’s Gone to Hilo, for instance, had few variations no matter where the ship’s company hailed from. Rolling Home, more a song than a shanty, was regarded as sacred by the old-time seamen and no alteration or parody was allowed in any circumstances. Normally the distinctions were found in North East Coast ships, London ships and those hailing from the West Coast - Glasgow, Liverpool or the Bristol Channel.

A number of the old shanties have been lost entirely, although it is probable that most of them were allied to those that have survived. Many obviously originated as songs for singing ashore, but their time and rhythm were altered to suit their purpose afloat. There are few authentic versions of any shanty because of the diversities adopted in different districts, and the innumerable variations that a good shantyman brought in to suit the taste of his shipmates. Comparatively few sailors are musicians, and the difficulty of preserving the original form of the songs is therefore much the greater.

Origin of Shanties

The majority of the words concerned the sea, women, the joys of paying-off, soldiering or the jobs ashore which tempted the sailor to desert or to “swallow the anchor” (settle down ashore) at the end of a voyage. The verses, sung by the shantyman only, told the story and were constantly changed; a really good hand could bring in any number of topical allusions which amused his shipmates immensely.

The skipper’s a curse and the mate he’s worse;

Leave her, Johnnie, leave her

was a great favourite when a poor ship was finishing her voyage and the crew had nothing more to fear. In a good ship it was seldom sung at all. The verse was the only part that was ever in any way lewd, for it was heard only by those whom it could not offend. The chorus, however, could be heard all over the ship or even all over the harbour, and the average sailor was far too decent to offend anybody’s feelings unnecessarily.

One of the most interesting points about the old shanties is the way topical allusions that had been incorporated remained for many years after people ashore had forgotten all about them.

There’s lots of gold, so I’ve been told,

On the banks of the Sacramento

is clearly reminiscent of the first Californian gold rush in 1849, yet this verse was constantly being sung in the early days of the twentieth century. One shanty, called Paddy Works on the Railway, dated from the middle of the nineteenth century when so many seamen, especially Irishmen, deserted British ships in American ports to get work on the construction of the great American transcontinental railways.

The real origin of the shanties and many other details about them are wrapped in obscurity. Probably a form of shanty has existed wherever manual labour has been employed. The Chinese coolie is an acknowledged expert, although his songs cannot be described as musical to Western ears. It is possible, too, that the Pyramids were built to the shanties of their day. One theory is that the sailor’s traditional “Yo-ho” is the “Jehovah” of the Israelites in their captivity, but that is one of the many things that cannot be proved conclusively.

The earliest, shanty of which we have any definite record is Amsterdam, or I’ll Go No More A’Roving. This can be traced back to the first part of the seventeenth century, when the Dutch port of Amsterdam was closed to British seamen. There were, however, two well-known seamen’s taverns named The Amsterdam, one on the river front at Gravesend and the other in St. George’s-in-the-East. The words of the song that refer to crimping and to the company which these taverns supported make it probable that this was one of the shanties that originated on the London river.

Few shanties date further back than the early nineteenth century, when crews became smaller and the manual work proportion-ately harder. At this period the sailors got to know the negro well, for the cotton trade from the Southern States and the guano trade from the islands of the South American coast were maintained by slave labour.

There is an enormous negro influence obvious in many of the shanties. The minor key, for instance, appealed to the coloureds and the seamen. Coloured sailors were always among the best shantymen in the ship, particularly in the part-singing, which was more difficult and beyond the ability of the average white sailor.

A good shantyman was a great asset in a sailing ship. In some of the old-time clippers he was given four shillings a month extra pay. This practice was later discontinued; but the shantyman could be sure of plenty of tots of liquor from the afterguard as a reward for his labours. Although some of these shantymen had remarkable voices, it was most important for them to have a good sense of time and rhythm. If a man was a good rhymester as well, so much the better.

The shantyman was the only man in the forecastle who was by any chance allowed to take things easily. He would claim that he was reserving his energies for his singing and that it would not do for him to pull too hard. On the other hand, if he were the only shantyman on board, he often found himself disturbed in his watch below to help with a job on deck.

The Ship’s Musician

In halyard jobs the shantyman generally took the fore part, so that he could stand up and get more breath for his singing than the men who were bending to their work with a lead block on deck. At the pump he took the place on the bell rope next to the pump handle. He had to think of many things besides the words and the tune. When the hands were “sweating up” (giving a final tightening), he had to arrange for the chorus to be sung simultaneously with the upward roll of the ship.

In ships which were sufficiently well-manned to make the shanties of secondary importance, the ship’s musician took the place of the shantyman, generally with a violin or accordion; but his music could not help a heavy hoist in the same way as the song of a good shantyman.

In the big ship's company of a man-of-war there was always a fiddler to be found. In the Blackwall frigates of Green’s and other fleets, a fiddler was specially shipped. He had extra pay and his own special duties, such as attending to the livestock. Many Scottish sailing ships would sign on a skilled piper, who paced the deck as he played.

The great ambition of the ship’s musician was to be photographed sitting on the top of a capstan in action, as if he were one of the old naval ship’s fiddlers who were known as “monkey’s orphans”. This position was comfortable enough with the old-fashioned capstan, but in later days the top of the capstan was geared to revolve twice as fast as the “barrel”, and in the opposite direction, so that it would have been difficult for the musician to keep his position.

In the Navy shantying was normally prohibited. There were plenty of men for the job and the shanty was not necessary. It might also have prevented orders from being heard. Only in small ships, or for hoisting up the biggest boats between the yardarms, was an exception made. Then only a “stamp and go” was allowed, in which the men ran along the deck with the rope to the tune of What shall we Do with the Drunken Sailor or something similar. The East Indiamen and Blackwall frigates were well manned and followed naval fashion. In many of the American sailing ships shantying was prohibited for the same reasons.

It was in British ships whose crews were cut down to the minimum that shantying was heard at its best and was most useful.

Outward bound there was comparatively little shantying in ships as they left port, but that was simply because the men were generally too drunk to do more than carry out their work mechanically. As the docks dropped astern, however, and the fumes of bad liquor were blown away, shantying occupied a good deal of the officers’ thoughts.

The second mate would sometimes begin a shanty while leading the job, but only to give a start. The officers wanted to see the men give tongue with no more encouragement than “Sing, somebody”, or “Strike a light, boys, it’s duller than an old graveyard”. If

the men took it up of their own accord, all was well; but if there was not a sound - “a dumb crew” setting about “dry pulls” - then the officers looked out for trouble. They knew that the unwillingness to sing was a sure sign of a discontented forecastle that might break into open mutiny.

In the old days it was a tradition that the Norwegians, Finns and Swedes had little use for shanties; the owners were keener on brace and halyard winches and other labour-saving devices than were the British.

Favourite Shanties

Even when Scandinavians were numbered in the crew of British ships it was a long time before they joined in the shanties. When after a few years they did join in, they became enthusiastic and learnt the words by heart although otherwise they were unable to speak English. Frenchmen were seldom keen on shanties, but they were always holding sing-songs during the dog-watches.

Every shanty had its purpose. The capstan shanties were generally the fastest, as they were almost, marching songs; but on a hard, steady pull out of the muddy bottom they often became the slowest by force of circumstances. Of the capstan shanties, a favourite was Billy Boy, originally a Northumbrian folk song. Fire Down Below, Sally Brown, Santa Anna, We’re all bound to Go were all used for work at the capstan. Rio Grande could be sung for almost any purpose and was especially popular with North East Coast ships. Weighing the anchor at the beginning of a homeward voyage was a special event that usually called for Shenandoah, Rolling Home or Goodbye, Fare Thee Well. Shenandoah was used in many circumstances. Coloured sailors sang these shanties particularly well, and the words were regarded as exempt from any variation or parody. Another favourite capstan shanty was Blow Ye Winds in the Morning, but it has practically escaped the attention of the numerous enthusiasts who have written books about shanties or set them to music.

A haul on the staysail or jib halyards was another light job that permitted a quick shanty. Most of the capstan shanties were used for this purpose and for pumping. A particular favourite for pumping was Clear the Track, let the Bulgine run. [Bulgine means engine.] The words show that this shanty originated about the middle of the 19th century.

PULLING ON THE CROSSJACK BRACES is a job that requires short strong pulls on the rope

PULLING ON THE CROSSJACK BRACES, shown above, is a job that requires short strong pulls on the rope. Shanties used for this purpose are naturally less musical and have to be sharply accented. Haul away, Joe, was used for this class of work, and was sung with great emphasis on the word Joe.

Hauling on the topsail or topgallant halyards was a heavy job and demanded a shanty with a strongly accented chorus; but the halyards were often taken to the capstan and worked up with a capstan shanty. Blow, my Bully Boys, Blow, Whisky Johnnie, Blow the Man Down, Boney was a Warrior and other well-known shanties were for hauling on the topsail. Boney was a Warrior went with such a swing that in spite of the heavy weight the officer of the watch often had to be careful to belay in time to prevent some-thing from being carried away.

A Long Time Ago is one of the shanties with the greatest number of variations. Old sailors can remember such different versions as There were two Ships in Callao Bay, Noah built this Wonderful Ark and A Hundred Years is a Very Long Time, but they were all the same song originally. Hauling in the sheets to a rousing shanty would often save the trouble of rigging a handy billy, which was a small tackle used for odd hauls.

The short-pull, sweat-up shanty was generally, by the nature of the work, less musical than the others. This absence of music perhaps added to the men’s annoyance when called upon to sweat-up a yard. Haul Away, Joe, with a sharp accent on the word Joe for the pull, was the shanty normally used. Bowline shanties, at one time important, were scarcely known to the later generations of sailing ship men because bowlines went out of use except for those on courses where the pull was too short for a shanty. For the pull along the deck, the “stamp and go”, any capstan or pumping shanty would suffice, but sometimes military songs were used - Where has ye been all the Day? John Brown’s Body or Hieland Laddie, Hie and Laddie.

“CLEAR THE TRACK, LET THE BULGINE RUN” was a shanty almost always used for pumping

“CLEAR THE TRACK, LET THE BULGINE RUN” was a shanty almost always used for pumping. The word bulgine, a nautical term for engine, dates from the middle of the nineteenth century, when many of the sea shanties originated. Neither the words nor the music was written down, and alterations were continually being made, although the original words are doubtless still preserved in some shanties. This photograph shows the crew of the Grace Harwar at the pumps.

Among the well-known shanties, Roll the Cotton Down is remarkably consistent in words and music. Blow the Man Down - possibly it was originally Blow the Land Down - always went to the same tune, but the words varied, principally according to the district from which the ship hailed. London ships would mention Ratcliffe Highway, Liverpool ships Paradise Street, and those that hailed from the Bristol Channel would refer to Tiger Bay. Blow the Man Down was often sung on the west coast of South America when the last bag of nitrate was shantied up to the yardarm with the youngest apprentice sitting on it. We’ll pay Paddy Doyle for his Boots was normally used on the yard for getting the bunt of the courses up in furling, and occasionally on the last pull in sweating the topsail halyards up to their last inch. There is no authentic information as to who this Paddy Doyle was, but one man called Paddy Doyle was a famous bootmaker of Queenstown, Ireland. Reuben Ranzo was a shanty of infinite variety. It could be made to last for hours and was generally used on the halyards. The word Ranzo developed from the Portuguese name Lorenzo, and the shanty apparently originated in American whalers which shipped a number of Portuguese hands in the Azores. When a ship had been a month at sea and the men had worked off their advance notes - they called it “Working off the Dead Horse” - Poor Old Man or The Dead Horse would be used. These shanties could also be sung as pumping shanties. It’s time for Us to Leave Her or Leave Her, Johnnie, Leave Her were half shanties used at the capstan and often when the ship was about to pay off. These shanties had dozens of traditional verses and many entirely untraditional ones that gave the crowd forward the opportunity of telling the captain and officers what they thought of them. Sometimes, but not often, these verses were to some extent complimentary to the afterguard.

HEAVING THE CAPSTAN ROUND. The illustration shows the crew of the Penang raising the ship’s anchor by means of the capstan

HEAVING THE CAPSTAN ROUND. The illustration shows the crew of the Penang raising the ship’s anchor by means of the capstan. Generally a fast shanty that helps the men to keep time and give a concerted pull is used, and Billy Boy was an old favourite for this reason. If the anchor was on a muddy bottom, however, a hard, steady pull was necessary, and a shanty with a slower rhythm was used. Weighing the anchor at the start of a homeward voyage was an event which usually called for Shenandoah, Rolling Home or Good-bye, Fare Thee Well. The Penang (2,019 tons) was built in 1905 at Bremerhaven (Germany) and is 265 ft 8 in long, with a beam of 40 ft 3 in, and a depth of 24 ft 4 in.

The sailing coasters were often rather slip-shod in their shanties because they did not carry enough men. Although they had a number of shanties, these were seldom heard in deep-sea ships, and the usual habit was to adapt the music-hall ditties of the day.

Sea shanties must not be confused with the sailors’ songs that were sung only for amusement in the dog-watches. In the Navy such songs were called “Fore-bitters”, because they were sung round the fore bitts, or else “Come-all-ye’s”, because so many began with the words “Come all ye sailormen”. In the Merchant Service these songs were sung on or around the fore hatch in the second dog-watch. In the East Indiamen and some of the Blackwallers, the Navy fashion was followed and the singing was done by the order “Pipe to sing and dance”. In the ordinary merchantmen most dog-watch singsongs began spontaneously with somebody starting to sing or play a tune. These songs ranged from The Coast of Barbaree or Spanish Ladies down to My Name is Captain Kidd or The Merchant Shipping Act and The Limejuicer. Songs such as these, however, were useless for lightening a job of work.

Ships’ Orchestras

On the other hand these sailors’ songs were of immense use for helping to keep all hands cheerful, even when the songs were sung to order by the bo’sun’s pipe, as they were in the Navy. Many an old sailing ship man cherishes the memory of those dog-watch sing-songs as much as anything that he experienced in his youth. Most ship’s companies could produce at least one or two men with good voices, or singers who had the knack of appealing to their messmates. The circumstances would usually help to deepen the impression, for if conditions were unfavourable the men would have no time for singing. One of the things that kept a few regular travellers faithful to sail as long it was possible was the music of the sea - the wind and water, the shanties and the dog-watch sing-songs.

For all their orchestras and wireless, the crack modern liners cannot put before their passengers a programme to be compared with that of the old-timers. Perhaps the generation that appreciated the spirit of such rough-and-ready music has passed as well.

The British sailing ships were not well provided with musical instruments. One or at the most two real instruments were generally the most to be expected in any forecastle, and probably one or two more in the half-decks. Many a youngster learned to play passably well on an instrument, generally an accordion, mandoline or banjo, solely for the purpose of the sing-songs. These instruments served for accompanying the songs and choruses. When the ambition of the ship’s company demanded a band, it was of the variety that included combs, bones, cymbals and anything else down to disused frying-pans.

In Continental ships, particularly in those under the German, French, Italian and Spanish flags, there were some fine bands on board, able and willing to play good music, although their choice of instruments was limited by shipboard circumstances.

THE HALYARD WINCH has replaced the use of the capstan for hauling on the topsails in many sailing ships

THE HALYARD WINCH has replaced the use of the capstan for hauling on the topsails in many sailing ships. The machine does the pulling on the ropes and the singing of a shanty will not help it to work more efficiently. The capstan is still used, however, for other purposes, and can be seen on the right of this photograph, which was taken on board the Penang.

You can read more on “In the Sailing Ship’s Forecastle”, “Rigs of Sailing Ships” and

“Training in Sail To-Day” on this website.