Sea shanty

Sea shanties (singular "shanty", also spelled "chantey"; derived from the French word "chanter", 'to sing') were shipboard working songs. Predominantly an American and British phenomenon (some Continental countries frowned on singing at sea), shanties flourished from at least the fifteenth century through the days of steam ships in the first half of the 20th century. Most surviving shanties date from the nineteenth and (less commonly) eighteenth centuries.

In the days when human muscles were the only power source available aboard ship, sea shanties served a practical purpose: people tuned into the same rhythm can work 'in phase', as it were. They also helped alleviate boredom and give vent to the hard working conditions typical of the day.

Most shanties are "call and response" songs, with one voice (the shantyman) singing the line and the chorus of sailors bellowing the response. For example, the shanty "Boney":

Shantyman: Boney was a warrior,
All: Way, hey, ya!
Shantyman: A warrior and a terrior,
All: Jean Francois!

The "pulls" would be on the last syllable of the response in each line.

Shanties may be divided into several rough categories:

  • Long-drag shanties: Sung when a job of hauling on a rope was expected to last a long time. Usually one pull per verse, to give the men a chance to rest. Example: "Hanging Johnny"
  • Short-drag shanties: Sung when a job of hauling on a rope was expected to be quick. Two or more pulls per verse. Example: "Boney"
  • Capstan shanties: Raising the anchor on a ship involved winding the rope along a giant winch, turned by sailors walking around it. Capstan shanties are anchor-raising shanties. They are typically more "smooth" sounding than other types (no pulling required) and, unlike many other types of shanties, frequently have a full chorus in addition to the call-and-response verses. Example: "Paddy Lay Back"
  • Pumping Shanties: All wooden ships leak somewhat. There's a special hold, called the bilge hold, at the very bottom of the ship where the seawater collects. The bilge water must frequently be pumped out; on period ships it was done with a two-man pump. Example: "Strike The Bell"
  • Fo'c's'le (Forecastle) Shanties: Shanties sung for fun. Example: "Rolling Down To Old Maui". As these were not sung during work, they are sometimes not referred to as "shanties", but rather simply as sea songs.

The above categories are not absolute. Sailors could (and did) take a song from one "type" and, with necessary alterations to the rhythm, use it for a different task. The only rule that was almost always followed was that songs that spoke of returning home were only sung on the homeward leg, and songs that sung of the joys of voyaging etc., were only sung on the outward leg.

The shantyman was usually self-appointed. One did not sign on as a shantyman per se, but took on the role in addition. Nevertheless, sailors reputed to be good shantymen were valuable and respected--it was a good professional skill to have, along with strong arms and back.

Shanties were usually not sung ashore.


  • Download recording - "Roll the Old Chariot Along" spiritual and sea shanty from the Library of Congress' Gordon Collection (; performed by unknown persons in the Bay Area of California in the early 1920s


The Early Naval Ballads of England ed. J.O. Halliwell, Cambridge UK 1841, quoted in Hugill

The interested reader should look up Stan Hugill and Frank Shay, who have written extensively on sea shanties.

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