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What is a “sea shanty”?

Illustration of sailors singing sea songs, British National Maritime Museum at Greenwich

In December 2020, a Scottish singer named Nathan Evans made a TikTok video of an Australian sailor song called “The Wellerman.” Over the next few weeks, using the TikTok app’s layering function, thousands of singers added their own voices or musical instruments to the rapidly growing chorus. Before long “sea shanties” were trending in social media and a craze had begun.

The #ShantyTok phenomenon surprised people. Who would have thought that in the twenty-first century, old sea shanties would become so popular? This column will answer two questions: What is a sea shanty, and why did they recently become so popular?

In the nineteenth century (1800s) sailors had a deep repertoire of songs they sang purely for entertainment. There were many kinds of songs, including ballads, drinking songs, patriotic songs, instrumental music, and popular and folk songs from shore. Today, most people call all sailor songs “shanties.” Historically, though, shanties were just one part of a larger group of songs that scholars now call “sea music.” The “shanty”(also spelled “chantey”) is a type of work song traditionally sung aboard deepwater sailing vessels, particularly whaling ships and cargo-carrying “packet” ships, during the middle of the nineteenth century.

The shanty traces its origins to ports in the U.S. South like New Orleans, Mobile, Charleston, and Savannah in the early 1800s. Some Black stevedores and other dock workers were responsible for compressing, or “screwing,” cargoes of cotton into the holds of ships. These workers used songs to entertain themselves, keep time, and coordinate their labor.

The men who operated those ships found that these work songs greatly aided their labor. These songs, and the knowledge of how to use them, quickly spread throughout the maritime trade routes of the world, from Great Britain to South Australia, New York to the coast of Peru. One of the earliest published accounts of shanties being used aboard ships comes from Richard Henry Dana’s book Two Years Before the Mast. Dana’s book depicts Hawaiian singers leading shanties for American sailors off the coast of California in the 1830s.

Aboard ships, there were two basic types of work for which shanties were used––hauling (pulling) and heaving (pushing). “Hauling” shanties were used for jobs requiring short, repetitive bursts of effort, such as pulling a rope called a “halyard” to raise a sail. A typical hauling shanty uses a call-and-response format. A song leader or “shantyman” sings out a line, and then the crew responds with another line, usually a repeated refrain. The crew would pull once or twice on an accented beat, in time with the music.

Photo taken by author at the Mystic Seaport Museum in the 1980s.
Photo taken by author at the Mystic Seaport Museum in the 1980s.

A good example of a hauling shanty that clearly illustrates the African American origins of the shanty is “Alabama John Cherokee.” This is a hauling shanty with two pulls on the refrain “AL-a-bam-a JOHN Cher-o-kee.” In this video, the shanty is sung by shantyman Geoff Kaufman aboard the 1841 whaling bark Charles W. Morgan. The song is used to raise the Morgan’s main upper topsail.

By contrast, sailors used heaving chanteys for jobs that required more sustained effort, usually operating heavy machinery like the capstan, windlass, or pumps. This kind of job required a steady marching rhythm to coordinate the pace of the crew’s work. Like the hauling chanteys, heaving chanteys usually used a call-and-response structure, but the refrains were longer, and the patterns of response could be more complex. This video of a crew demonstrating the use of a capstan shows a heaving shanty called “Donkey Riding” sung aboard the ship Joseph Conrad at Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut.

There have been sea music festivals and sing-alongs in port cities all over the world for at least fifty years. Until 2020 the sea music revival scene was rarely noticed by the mainstream press and made little impact on social media.

One reason the #ShantyTok phenomenon became so popular so quickly is because it was driven by young people. Although the common image of sea shanty singers is a grizzled old man with a weathered voice, the sailors who sang shanties back in the nineteenth century were young. Most ordinary seamen were between 17 and 22. Like the internet surfers of today, these adventurous young sailors were connected to global networks of work and trade. They transported products, news, music, and other popular culture to far-flung parts of the globe. Their sea songs are rousing. They have an exciting energy, a driving rhythm, and lyrics suggesting rowdy and raunchy behavior, the kinds of things that still appeal to young people today.

Sailors’ songs bring people together. Everyone takes turns leading and following, creating a participatory musical experience. Today it is hard to find musical experiences that are easily accessible to everyone. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were all physically isolated from one another in our pandemic pods. We longed for interaction. People discovered the joy of singing chanteys and other maritime music as a way of making connections with people around the globe.

James Revell Carr, Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology and Musicology and director of the John Jacob Niles Center for American music, studies the importance of travel and commerce in the development of hybrid music and dance cultures. His major interests include sea chanteys, Anglo-American balladry, Hawaiian music, folk music revivals, and improvisational rock. Learn more…