The History of the Sea Shanty

Where did the sea shanty originate?

sea shanty

A shanty is a rhythmic work song, sung by labourers as they work in large groups at hard, repetitive work.  The sea shanty was a song used by sailors as they went about their work onboard a ship.

Sea shanties first and foremost served a practical purpose.  The rhythmic cadence of the shanty would synchronise the movements of the sailors as they worked.  This was necessary when, for example, weighing anchor or pulling up sails required a strong force of unified strength.  The songs also brought a feeling of solidarity to the crew, and could be uplifting to the spirits of the sailors.  Don’t forget many sailors were not there by choice but had been press-ganged into service so motivation was vital for a fully functioning happy ship.  Dissent and mutiny had to be avoided at all costs.

Origin of the word shanty

Shanty type songs can be traced back to the early 15th century.  The word shanty not so far.  The earliest mention of the word is in the mid-1800s.  It is thought the word shanty derived from the chantez the French verb meaning to sing, but there is no actual evidence for this.

Types of sea shanty

Sea shanties are mostly call & response songs, with a shantyman leading the first line and the seafarers booming their response.  Sea shanties were divided into two categories, the capstan shanty and the pulling shanty.

The capstan chanty

This was, as the name suggests, employed when using the capstan to raise the anchor or similar tasks.  The shanty needed to be of regular tempo and any song could be used for this task.  It was necessary to keep the attention of the sailors and to amuse them during this tedious task.  Bawdy lyrics were often added to the songs for the amusement of the crew.

The Pulling or Long Drag Shanty

Used for raising or lowering the sails, the pulling or long drag shanty had to ensure all the sailors pulled together at the same time.  There needed to be a gap between the exertion for the men to reposition their grip for the next pull.  These shanties were led by the shantyman and were the classic call and response structure.

Other shanties were concocted during the long evenings on deck.  These funny forecastle shanties would tell of places visited, battles, adventures and, of course, love and the women encountered on their high seas voyages.

Music played an essential role in the lives of seafarers. It helped them to relax after a heavy day at work and kept them up whenever they needed the motivation to carry out the often dangerous, repetitive and unyielding work of a sailor.


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