Audio Advent 2020 Day 13: Sea Shanties

For today’s Audio Advent blog post I thought I would try and combine two of my main interests: music and sailing. Although sailing is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about music, and nor is music when thinking about sailing, there is one thing that has linked the two for hundreds, if not thousands, of years: sea shanties.


Having been exposed to various shanties and shanty bands from a young age, firstly through Swallows and Amazons, and later at folk festivals, I have always enjoyed listening to the songs, but hadn’t until recently considered how they were designed to work. In its purest form, a sea shanty is a traditional, unaccompanied work song composed with the intention of boosting crew morale aboard a working vessel while performing physically demanding tasks such as weighing anchor or hoisting a sail. Characteristics such as their rhythmic drive, call and response sections and plenty of chorus lines all combine to create an effective motivational tool as well as an enjoyable piece of music. Despite the world’s proper seafaring days being mostly over, and all trading now done with vast automated ships and a skeleton crew, sea shanties are still enjoyed by many on the safety of dry land. Various groups such as Kimber’s Men and Fisherman’s Friends try to keep the tradition alive, performing shanties at festivals and concerts, while bands such as Bellowhead have developed shanties into folk band arrangements.


Although modified greatly for each individual task on board, shanties generally have a steady and purposeful rhythm, designed to keep up the pace of work on board. The rhythms are often matched to the speed of the task, so that moments when bursts of effort are required are in time with the strong beats of the song. Although it was not known about in quite so much detail at the time sea shanties were used, modern research has shown that music helps distract the brain from tiredness and muscle fatigue, reducing perceived effort and thus encouraging sailors to work harder and longer without even realising it. As talked about in the day 6 Audio Advent blog post by Saskia, music can be an incredibly helpful tool in increasing productivity, and although that article focused primarily on personal productivity, I think it is just as applicable in a group setting such as on board a ship. Have a listen to the famous ‘What shall we do with a drunken sailor’. This is generally sung at around 120bpm, or two hertz, which has been shown in recent studies to be both the most common tempo for music, and the most common walking pace. This particular shanty is, of course, sung while hauling up the anchor so a steady, comfortable pace is required to keep sailors pulling up the long, heavy, and most likely muddy chain. This technique is by no means reserved for the sea, as armies would have used a similar technique when playing a march to motivate soldiers to walk long distances. 


Another key motivator within a group setting is camaraderie, and a feeling that everyone is working equally. Sea shanties help to promote this feeling by mostly being sung using a technique called ‘call and response’. As the name suggests, a call and response involves someone singing one line, to which the rest of the group respond with another. The lead would be taken by the Shantyman, whose powerful voice could be heard above the roar of the sea - think Brian Blessed decibel levels! A great example of this is the shanty ‘John Kanaka’, in which the Shanty man sings ‘I thought I heard the old man say’ and the crew reply ‘John Kanaka naka tulai ay’. This is a ‘halyard shanty’, so called because it was sung while the crew were raising the heavy canvas sails using course hessian halyards; not an easy task! Sea shanties also typically have multiple short verses, which are each modified to be relatable to the task at hand. Again, this is the job of the Shantyman to master this modular structure, and to build the song around the task. They may also slip in a comedy line here and there to keep spirits up! This highly modular format with regular chorus lines also encourages the audience at a concert, clearly demonstrating the power that communal singing has to motivate people.


Due to the inherently lonely nature of long sailing voyages, many shanties were not sung to encourage work, but rather to reminisce about their homes and families, and to bring the crew together over an emotion they were all experiencing. A couple of shanties come to mind when thinking about this, such as ‘South Australia’ and ‘Little Pot Stove’. The shanty ‘South Australia’ was sung during voyages between Britain and Australia in the 19th century, when the Australian gold rush encouraged frequent trading between the two countries. Although some lyrics such as ‘Heave away Haul away’ suggest it may have been used as a capstan shanty, the song is mainly focussed around the wives that the sailors left behind. The lines ‘I see my wife standing on the quay, the tears do start as she waves to me’ are particularly emotional. The ‘Little Pot Stove’, on the other hand, is entirely a homesick shanty, and would have been sung down below to keep spirits up. It was commonly sung by men aboard whaling ships reminiscing about the warmth and comfort of their houses at home; a stark contrast to the freezing conditions they would have been experiencing in Canada, Iceland or Norway where whaling was common.


Even if, like me, you’re only raising the sails on a small dinghy, or hauling in a comparatively minuscule 6kg anchor, I recommend having a listen to some sea shanties both simply for enjoyment, and also to give you an idea of how hard life on the sea was without internal combustion, electronic, and hydraulic assistance. 

Here are the links to a few of the songs I’ve mentioned in this article:

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