A short while ago, my son, who is in foreign parts, as they say, started winging me snatches of sea shanties over the internet. “Listen to this one, mum”, he’d text, as “There once was a ship, it put to sea…” started up on Spotify. Closely followed by “I’ve been roving all my life, and now I’ve found a lady wife” , and more.
Had my unashamedly 21st century boy suddenly started channeling Edwardian folkologist Cecil Sharp? Had he joined the ranks of the prestigious English Folk Dance and Song Society? Not at all – he’d simply started listening to the strains of the folk-songs in the background of video game “Assassins Creed”, whilst playing on his XBox. It piqued his interest, and he requested a post on sea shanties. So here it is, for him.
Unravelling the sailors’ knots
Before I started the research for this post, I hadn’t appreciated how many threads I’d have to untie, to reach anything like verifiable facts about shanties. Even when untangled, nautical things are murky. Sailors are not known for their adherence to rules, or for a love of paperwork. They mix with other nautical types from around the globe and never stay in one place for long! This is an attempt to unravel the sailor’s knots. It may or may not be close to the truth.
So, diving right in, what is a sea shanty? Everyone agrees it’s a nautical song. But the arguments start immediately. Are all nautical songs shanties? Most (but by no means all) authorities argue that they’re not. The majority say that shanties were songs belted out, specifically to accompany manual work on board, to make it easier.
Worth five men
In the days of sail, before engines lightened the load, tasks on board ship – hoisting sails, moving the yardarms, hauling the anchor and pumping out the bilges – were done manually. Shanties helped the crew to work rhythmically in unison. With some shanties, a leader, or shanty man, would call out a line, and the men on the team would respond, hauling or stamping in time with the music. An old saying was that “a shanty is worth five men!”.
There were different shanties for different jobs. Inevitably, there are arguments about which songs were applied to which tasks. To add to the merriment, some shanties accompanied multiple jobs, just for the hell of it.
Let’s look more closely at the sailors’ labours. Some jobs – such as hauling up a sail – simply required a group of sailors to seize a rope and walk away, pulling on it. So these were sometimes called “stamp and go”, or “walking away” shanties. And then, which particular shanties were sung depended on whether the job was a “long haul” or a “short haul”.
In for the long haul
Long haul shanties also have the names of halyard shanties or long-drag shanties. They were for the harder, longer lasting tasks. Generally, each pull was a verse long. This was so the men could catch their breath before their next effort.
So, an example of a long haul shanty:
Blow the man down, bullies, blow the man down
Way, hay, blow the man down!
Blow him right back in to Liverpool town
Give me some time to blow the man down!
Short haul, or hand-over-hand shanties, were faster, and involved a quick call and response, because the tasks were easier. Verses were improvised and added, until the job was done. So, for example, we have:
Shanty-man Boney was a warrior
Crew Whey ay yah!
Shanty-man A warrior, a terrier,
Crew Jean Francois
Shanty-man Boney went to school in France
Crew: Whey ay yah!
Shanty-man He learned to make them Rooshians dance
Crew: Jean Francois
And the even more well known:
Shanty-man: What shall we do with a drunken sailor?
Crew: What shall we do with a drunken sailor?
Shanty-man What shall we do with a drunken sailor?
Crew Early in the morning.
Stick him in the scuppers with a hosepipe on him…
Tie him to the mast and then you’ll flog him…
Put him in bed with the Captain’s daughter… and so on
That last-mentioned fate of the drunken sailor was not the easy option it might seem. The “Captain’s daughter” was navy slang for the cat-’o-nine-tails.
Even so, that might be a better fate than that dished out by Rambling Syd Rumpo… “Who?”, you may ask. This was the alias of Kenneth Williams, doyen of the Carry On Films, who in the sixties assumed the persona of Rambling Syd, a spurious folk singer, in the BBC Radio comedy “Round the Horne”.
This was the stuff of my childhood Sunday lunchtimes, where my parents would giggle at Syd’s filthy innuendos, as he vandalised yet another English folk song. His contributions to what should be done to the drunken sailor included :
Hit him in the nadgers with the bosun’s plunger,
Slap him on the grummet with a wrought-iron lunger,
Cuff him in the moolies with the Captain’s grunger…
Old-style English humour at its best – or worst. I will say no more.
“Hey, hey, Pawl”
So much for pulling, now for the pushing – what did the sailors push? Either a capstan or a windlass. Both do a similar job. Ropes are attached to them, and as the sailors push, the rope is wrapped around them. A notch, called a “pawl”, catches and prevents the rope from slipping back. As mentioned in the shanty:
Paddy lay back,
Take up the slack,
Take a turn around the capstan,
Heave a pawl…
Capstan and Windlass
The difference between them is that a capstan has a vertical axle and a windlass a horizontal axle. A capstan handled jobs such as hauling up the anchor. The sailors would insert spikes into the capstan and push on the spikes, to push the capstan round, in order to haul on the rope.
Sailors used windlasses to pump out the bilges. Both capstan and windlass shanties tended to be less rhythmic than the hauling shanties, because they didn’t require regular bursts of energy
So, as an example of a capstan song:
Farewell and adieu to you, Spanish ladies,
Farewell and adieu to you, ladies of Spain;
For we have received orders
For to sail to old England,
But we hope in a short time to see you again.
We’ll rant and we’ll roar like true British sailors,
We’ll rant and we’ll roar all on the salt sea.
Until we strike soundings in the channel of old England;
From Ushant to Scilly is thirty five leagues.
After a hard shift, the crew would relax in the fo’c’s’le – that’s the forecastle, or the front, pointy end of the ship. For entertainment, they’d play musical instruments and sing songs. Some folkologists argue that these off-duty songs are also shanties. Others say no, and call them fo’c’sle songs, or even forebitters, which is an American term for the forecastle. These folky folk love to argue.
The crews would sing drinking songs such as this – a favourite from Assassin’s Creed:
Come all you bold heroes, give an ear to my song
And we’ll sing in the praise of good brandy and rum.
There’s a clear, crystal fountain near England shall roll –
Give me the punch ladle, I’ll fathom the bowl
I’ll fathom the bowl
I’ll fathom the bowl
Give me the punch ladle
I’ll fathom the bowl !
From France we do get brandy, from Jamaica comes rum:
Sweet oranges and apples from Portugal come.
But stout beer and strong cider are England’s control –
Give me the punch ladle, I’ll fathom the bowl !
A drop o’ Nelson’s blood
And now we confront the big argument amongst the belligerent folk community (who’d ha’ thought it?). Who actually sang the first shanties? The Americans put a strong case for their own esteemed nation. They argue that many shanties derive from work songs sung by the slaves on the cotton plantations. They used a call-and-response pattern similar to those used on deck. In fact, Americans claim as their own one of the most iconic of shanties:
Well, a drop of Nelson’s blood wouldn’t do us any harm,
And a drop of Nelson’s blood wouldn’t do us any harm,
And a drop of Nelson’s blood wouldn’t do us any harm,
And we’ll all hang on behind
And we’ll roll the old chariot along,
We’ll roll the golden chariot along,
We’ll roll the old chariot along
And we’ll all hang on behind!
Oh, a nice drop of gin wouldn’t do us any harm….
Oh, a night with the girls wouldn’t do us any harm…
And a damn good flogging wouldn’t do us any harm….etc
American musicologists argue that the lyrics and tune are based on an old southern spiritual. They claim this – and many other shanties – as their own, rather than British. One strand of their argument is that the Royal Navy banned the singing of shanties, dictating that work was directed only by the bosun’s whistle. Consequently, there was no tradition of shanties in the British navy.
It’s true that the RN did discourage shanties. But even so, there are written accounts of shanties upon the Navy’s ships. In the 1769 log of HMS Nellie, there’s an account of the crew singing Farewell Spanish Ladies, one of the shanties mentioned above. And of course, Britain had a merchant fleet as well as a Royal Navy, where rules were probably a touch more loose.
And why on earth would Americans write a song about Nelson, the great British hero? The song actually alludes to rum – “Nelson’s blood”. When Nelson died at Trafalgar, his body was transported back to England for burial. In order to preserve the body, it was stored in a barrel of alcohol. The legend has it that the alcohol was rum, and that on the homeward voyage, sailors would sneak a tot of the preserving liquid in honour of the admiral. Chances are, the actual preservative was brandy, mixed with camphor and myrrh, rather than rum. But legends prevail longer than any dull fact.
Of course, the truth of the origin of sea shanties is probably that they’re a cosmopolitan mixture of cross-hybridisation and borrowings. Sailors turned up at ports across the globe, looking for work, and of course took their music with them. Sailors from different nations mixed freely, especially in the days before formal passports regulated travel.
In the southern states of America, there are records of British and other foreign sailors coming to the seaports to work on loading cotton into merchant ships, during the winter months when conditions were cold and harsh back home. No doubt, songs would be shared and swapped.
An international crew
The National Archives has now digitised records of the 18,000 sailors and marines who fought at the battle of Trafalgar, in 1805, and of their nationalities. (You can go online here and see if any of your ancestors were there. Sadly, none from my family tree).
There were sailors from a staggering 22 nations, fighting on HMS Victory alone. Nelson’s crew even included sailors from France and Spain, who were the two enemy states that he was fighting! After British sailors, the next largest contingent in Nelson’s navy were 3,500 men from Ireland. But crew members from Africa, the West Indies, America and Canada also mixed with many others from across Europe.
Seamen with experience were a rare commodity, and so they were sought out wherever the navy fetched up. They were recruited with the promise of wealth and spoils, or else were pressed into service – especially if a foreign ship was seized. Plenty of opportunity then, to swap and learn each other’s shanties. Singing worked as a lingua franca, when languages weren’t shared. So, no wonder the origins of any particular shanty are so hard to pin down.
Hiding in plain sight
The songs are still around today, of course. And not only on the soundtrack of computer games. Go to any folk club, and you’ll sooner or later hear the refrains of Leave her Johnnie, leave her, or Spanish Ladies. You might have seen the recent film Fisherman’s Friends, where a hapless Danny Mayes, as a record producer, manages a motley crew of shanty-singing Cornish fisherman. That film certainly helped revive the genre, and is well worth the watch. But I’d bet that you sang at least one of the songs above at school. Go on, have a hum or a whistle – help keep them alive…