What you need to know about the sea shanty

It seems the humble sea shanty is everywhere these days. It went from being an integral part of ship life to an extremely niche genre. Now, with their recent rise to fame on TikTok, they’re back in the public eye.

Some of the old school sea shanty lovers are watching this phenomenon unfold with a twitch in their eye. Why?

Because the majority of these newcomers don’t know what a sea shanty is. Worried that might be you? Don’t be. We’re going to explain exactly what they are, where they come from, and why the old school opinion doesn’t matter.

What is a sea shanty?

A sea shanty is a particular type of work song. It was sung by groups of sailors to help them keep time on the various tasks onboard a ship. Typically they were sung acapella without any supporting instruments – no one has time to grab a guitar when they’re meant to be doing heavy manual labour.

The shanties weren’t just for keeping time and ensuring work was carried out efficiently. A large part of it was for keeping morale up. A happy sailor is going to work harder than a tired and depressed sailor.

We know that singing improves your mood. Try it. Sing one song and see if you’re not in a better temperament by the end of it. Not only that, but when singing with a group you’ll develop a closer bond. Not a bad thing when you’re constantly in each other’s space with nowhere to escape to.

The Shantyman leads the song. He’ll sing a verse and set the pace for the task at hand. Improvisation was approved of in the verses. The words vary based on the mood of the crew and the nature of the work. That’s why there are so many versions available. A lewd joke is a good way to revitalise a weary crew. 

There are probably thousands of fantastic verses we have no record of. Think how many parody versions of Wellerman have made it onto the internet in a few months. Imagine what would happen over years at sea!

The chorus is almost always simple. It makes it easy to pick up and get involved with – even if you aren’t familiar with the song. It’s not ideal if your crew needs to spend days practising songs before they can do the work.

Origin of the sea shanty

The question of where the shanty came from is still up for debate. It’s universally agreed that they’re inspired by work and traditional folk songs from the land. These were adapted to fit the needs of life at sea – we’ll have a post on that soon!

The name is believed to come from the French verb ‘chanter’ meaning ‘to sing’. As you’d expect, a lot of British sailors didn’t want their historical tradition having anything to do with the French. As such, there are several alternate theories floating around the internet. Unfortunately, as far as we can tell, we’ve got to give this one to the French.

It’s not clear when the first shanty was sung. There are documents that suggest a shanty was in use in the late 16th century. I’m sure some of you are itching to comment, “Surely there have been songs on ships since forever…?”

You’d be right. This is where the old school shanty lovers chime in. 

“Those songs aren’t shanties.”

Sea shanties vs sea songs

Technically speaking they’re right. There’s a distinction between a sea shanty and a sea song. 

The sea shanty is all about rhythm. The task changes the type of shanty that would be used. Hoisting a sail would use a halyard shanty. Whereas a capstan shanty would keep everyone in time for pulling in the anchor. These tasks have a different rhythm. 

Men turning the capstan

The capstan is used to multiply the force of men and allow them to move much heavier weights. But they need to work in unison. Imagine trying to turn that if your crew isn’t coordinated. It ain’t going to move.

“Sea songs may be defined as everything sailors sang in hours of relaxation.” – Harold Whates

He’s very clear that they wouldn’t sing sea shanties in their downtime. They were strictly for work and not fun. If it’s not used for keeping work on pace and is predominantly about the sea, it’s a sea song. 

Shanties nowadays

After the introduction of steam-powered ships, the practical use of shanties dwindled. Machinery became commonplace and gradually replaced the crew’s manual labour. Without that work, the shanty was no longer needed. They were no longer sung at sea and became a tradition largely practised on land.

The tradition was kept alive by folks passionate about the shanty. Popular choices include the likes of David Coffin, The Longest Johns, and The Dreadnoughts. They paved the way for TikTokers like Nathan Evans, Jonny Stewart, and Luke Taylor to add their voice to the tradition.

At ShantyKaraoke we want you to understand the history. It’s interesting and lets you understand the songs better. But it’s important to point out that times have changed. The layman definition is now the popular one. Anything that sounds nautical is lumped into the sea shanty category. There’s no practical distinction between sea songs and sea shanties anymore.

We break almost all the traditional rules in our covers. We’ve taken an artistic license to deliver a song that’s more enjoyable to sing along with. If you tried to turn the capstan to our version you’d be all over the place. Our use of an acoustic guitar is also blasphemous to the diehard traditionalist. We don’t care. 

Final thoughts

The shanty has its roots as a work song on merchant ships and whaling vessels. Times change. It doesn’t need to follow the same strict forms as then.

Our goal is to bring these songs into the 21st and make them accessible for everyone. On a ship, in the pub, or sitting in your living room. We want to make it easy for anyone to join in this tradition. If you happen to learn a little bit of the history along the way, even better!

The shanty karaoke videos we created let you sing without a full crew. You have the lyrics on-screen and an acoustic backing track. Have some mates round? Even better. The video helps keep everyone on time while you learn the song.

Are you ready to become a Shantyman?

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