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Sea Shanties


Sea shanties were a type of work song used on ships especially in the nineteenth century.  They served to coordinate efforts of sailors while trimming the sails, raising anchor, lifting cargo, and performing other shipboard tasks.  Different kinds of shanties pertained to




each task, such as capstan, halyard, and ceremonial shanties.


Why did sailors use sea shanties?  The songs aided in coordination and maintaining energy of sailors during long-lasting, repetitive work.  But they also provided a means of expression and relaxation.  They were often handed down orally to become a defining part of the culture on ships.


Short haul shanties were used for tasks requiring hard pulls over a short amount of time, such as trimming the sails and raising the masthead.  Capstan shanties were for long tasks that could last for hours.  The capstan was a round object with holes in the top, so that sailors could insert bars and march in circles, to raise or lower the anchor.  Sailors kept rhythm by stamping on the deck and singing the words of the shanty.


Halyard shanties were sung during raising and lowering of sails.  One member of the crew would climb up the rigging and loosen the sails, which could weigh over 1,000 pounds.  The rest of the crew would take hold of a rope attached to the sails called a halyard.  During the chorus of the song, the crew would pull the halyard to lower the sails.


Ceremonial shanties were also sung after work, since singing was a popular activity for relaxation as well.  Shanties would tell stories of battles, romance, homesickness, and adventures at sea.  Shanties were especially sung during celebrations or when the ship reached important geographic locales.


Some lyrics to the shanty “Blow the Man Down” read: “Come all ye young fellows that follow the sea; To me, way hey, blow the man down; Now please pay attention and listen to me; Give me some time to blow the man down.  I’m a deep water sailor just come from Hong Kong; You give me some whiskey, I’ll sing you a song…”  In general, shanties were rhythmic, multi-cultural due to crews consisting of sailors from all around the world, and often humorous.


To hear sea shanties sung, check out Sailors' Songs and Sea Shanties.


Information in this article was adapted in part from Songs of the Sailor by Glenn Grasso.


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