Thursday, October 3, 2013

Sea Shanties

In 1978 I took a class in folklore and a fellow student told me about the Philadelphia Folk Song festival held in Schwenksville, PA every year. He worked at the show every summer. Gary and I went that summer and the also the following summer. It was like Woodstock but for folk music. You camped in a farm field. There were porta-potties, food stands, and pumps for water. Yes, there were people smoking funny cigarettes during the concerts. I found out about contact highs. You sat on the ground. None of which I would do today!

But the music!!! We saw Pete Seeger and Dave Brubeck. Taj Mahal and U. Utah Phillips. We saw Roberts and Barrand with traditional British folk, and Gordon Bok with American sea shanties and original songs about Maine and fishing. We saw Stan Rogers, a Canadian singer, and Priscilla Herdman whose voice was remarkable. And that is just some I recall right away.

Hearing Gordon Bok, Stand Rogers, and  Roberts and Barrand left us with a love for sea shanties.

Roll and Go, Songs of American Sailormen by Joanna C. Colcord, published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1924, was another book I found in the basement boxes.

Sea Shanties were basically work songs, often call and response with a leader or shantyman singing a solo and the chorus sung by the sailors.The oldest is probably "Haul on the Bowline"(pronounced bo-lin) perhaps in use in the reign of Henry VIII. The slow melody ends with a jerk as the men 'fall back' on the rope. 

Halliard Shanties were used for longer and heavier tasks, like hoisting sail. Blow the Man Down is a familiar example, with a chorus followed by "Give me some time to blow the man down!"

A favorite of ours was Reuben Ranzo, a mythical sailor who was quite a failure.We loved to sing along. In the end Ranzo learned navigation and married the captain's daughter. A fine end for a guy who was unable to do his duty and was flogged for it!

The Windlass or Capstan Shanty was for continual process work, like pulling and hauling. The author writes that it is a glorious thing to hear the chain clanking below in rhythm  to the shanty. The well beloved Shenandoah falls into this category.

One of my favorites is Lowlands, a song that has been through many changes. Gordon Bok sings a version that I love.

His version goes:
Lowlands, lowlands, away me boys,
I thought I heard the captain say
Don't go to sea no more.
A dollar a day is a sailors pay.

I also love "Leave Her, Johnny", a melodic and melancholy tune where the sailors complain about their treatment.

Forecastle Songs were shared at the end of the day, when the men gathered round with a fiddle or concertina. One old ballad we always loved was The Derby [or Darby] Ram, which was sung by John Roberts and Tony Barrand. It is a humorous song and quite fun. 

Perhaps the most memorable Forecastle song I learned was the ancient The Golden Vanity, which we first heard sung by Richard Dyer Bennett around 1973, along with the Turkish Revelry version. Many versions exist, but they all tell the story of a cabin boy who offers to sink the enemy ship for a price. The captain offers his daughter and a fortune. The boy takes an auger and sinks the enemy galley, then swims back and calls to be hauled back aboard. The heartless captain refuses to save a mass murderer! The cabin boy replies, "If it were not for my love for your daughter and your men/I would do unto you as I did unto them."And the cabin boy perishes in the sea. Here is Burl Ives' version:

Hear clips of these and other sea shanties at Smithsonian Folkways: Hear a clip at Smithsonian Folkways: and also at

Perhaps my first favorite shanty was Sloop John B, sung by the Beach Boys, and was one of the first 45 record i ever purchased. Now that dates me! I still find myself singing that song, especially "I feel so broke up, I wanna go home."

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