The following is excerpted from
Favorite Sea Songs of the Ancient Mariners
by Howard Hornstein
Shanties (shanty) are work songs. This
is spelled "chantey" or "chanty" if you happen to
be a "proper Englishman" who believes the word may have "chant"
as its origin. And it would be spelled "chantey" if it derived
from the French command, "Chantez! -- sing!", cried the French
soloist to mark the beginning of the chorus. However, there is also
ample evidence in the literature that the word originated with the American
lumbermen, railroad workers, dock hands and sailors of the mid 1800's.
These were generally hard working, drinking, nomadic men who sang all
day to ease their burden of work. They lived in shanties provided at
their work camps and they relaxed, drank, and sang their favorite songs
in shanties near the camps or along the waterfronts from New Brunswick
to New Orleans. So their songs came to be called "shanty songs"
by early folklorists. In one collection of songs from the Maine woods
dating about 1870, the word "shantyman" was a synonym for
"lumberman."(1) Today the spellings are used interchangeably.
For present purposes, I prefer to use "chantey."
If I were to venture a guess, I would
suggest that the practice of voicing rhythmic sounds while working may
be as old as mankind and probably is intrinsic to human nature. Permit
me a brief excursion to the land of "More Than You Ever Care To
Know" and let me report that the first written reference I learned
of regarding nautical 'chanteying' as we know it today, -- with a lead
singer (chanteyman) coordinating the work of singing mariners by means
of a rhythmic song -- appears in 1493. Felix Fabri, a Dominican friar,
sailed from Germany to Palestine aboard a Venetian galley and he described,
"mariners who sing when work is going on -- -- [There is] a concert
between one who sings out orders and the laborers who sing in response."(2)
The heyday of sail -- when international commerce
depended upon square-rigged ships, white canvas, and human muscle --
lasted hundreds of years but came to an end about 1920. A writer in
the St. James's Gazette of December 6, 1884 says, "The beau-ideal
chanty-man has been relegated to the past. His death-knell was the shriek
of the steam-whistle and the thump of the engines."(3) But for
a period of years between 1812 and 1862, the American clipper ships
sailed the seas without a rival. Until other nations learned to copy
our designs, the maritime world stood in awe of what we had accomplished.
The American clipper ship was, "a thing of supreme use and beauty,
fulfilling the mind`s desire for power and the heart`s romantic and
passionate aspiration[s] to a degree never before attained by the efforts
of man."(4) The Flying Cloud, launched in April, 1851, represented
the epitome of the American ship building industry. She was built in
the shipyard of Donald Mckay of East Boston. A reporter for the Boston
Daily Atlas of April 25, 1851 wrote, "If great length [235 ft.],
sharpness of ends, with proportionate breadth [41 ft.] and depth, conduce
to speed, the Flying Cloud must be uncommonly swift, for in all these
she is great." Throughout the 1850's, the ship proceeded to set
many sailing records, such as New York to San Francisco in 89 days,
and once covered 402 miles in 24 hours. Another example immortalized
in song was the Dreadnaught. The Dreadnaught was a medium clipper (packet)
built by Currier and Townsend, Newburyport, Mass., 1853. From 1853 to1864,
she made 31 round trips between New York and Liverpool for the Red Cross
Line of New York.
This was also a time when whaling ships
sailed from many countries. But probably the toughest of all whaling
men were those who manned the American ships sailing out of Atlantic
coast ports such as New Bedford and Mystic. These ships hunted whales
from Arctic to Antarctic waters, around Cape Horn and across the Atlantic
and Pacific Oceans. A whaling voyage could last up to four years and
the conditions these men endured, particularly during Polar winters
were nearly indescribable(20). The accomplishments of these men and
their ships is recorded with great pride in museums at Mystic, Connecticut.,
and Gloucester, New Bedford, and Kendall in Massachusetts. The Charles
W Morgan, Americas' last wooden whaleship, is beautifully restored and
now sits dockside as a major educational exhibit at the Mystic Seaport
Museum at Mystic, Connecticut. The Morgan is a three masted full rigged
whaling ship built in 1841 at the shipyard of Jethro and Zachariah Hillman
in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, for Captain Charles W. Morgan of New Bedford.
Between 1841 and 1921, she made 37 whaling voyages. In 1941, she was
purchased by the Mystic Seaport Museum.
It was during the last hundred years
(1820 to 1920) and mainly in America that 'chanteying' really flourished.
Chanteys were used by sailors to lighten certain backbreaking tasks
and to enliven their leisure hours. The words and music have been described
as simple and direct, wild and spirited, salty and rough as a North
Atlantic gale. In fact, they were a reflection of the sailors themselves.
These songs, with a few exceptions, were not those current and popular
ashore at the same period. Rather, they were traditional, not written
down, and evolved as all folksongs do out of the experience and needs
Aboard ship, the chanteys followed a
definite pattern according to the tasks for which they were needed.
Most often, they consisted of short solo passages by the chanteyman
which were well heard by those around him, followed by a chorus roared
out in full voice by all hands which carried great distances on the
wind. In the short-drag and halyard chanteys, which required hauling
on rope lines by hand in order to raise, turn, or take in sail, the
stanza was usually made up of two or three solo lines, each followed
by a chorus. For jobs that required heavy, continuous action, such as
raising the anchor by turning the capstan or pumping water from the
ship with the windlass, the structure of the chantey was more elaborate.
Verses were generally longer and there might be one or two short choruses,
followed by a long one that completed the stanza (see Roll the Woodpile
The chanteyman often used improvisation
and parody in his solo lines to the advantage and amusement of the crew.
But the chorus lines, on which the work action was based, were repetitive
and changeless(5). For example, in using Blood Red Roses to raise the
top-sails, top gallant sails (t'ga'n's'ls), or sky-s'ls, the chanteyman
-- who on some ships also put his back to the task -- would have sounded
||Me bonnie bunch o' roses, O!
||Go down! Ye blood red roses.
||Chanteyman: It's time for us to roll
||Go down! Ye blood red roses.
The words in italics, Go, were
the signals for the men to haul back on the halyards.
Chanteymen were generally proud of their
reputations for improvisation and originality and they tried not to
repeat the same line twice. If the ending of the song arrived before
the job was completed, they either added something new, or fell back
on a series of common stock lines used for "piecing out" on
such occasions. This explains why the same lines appear in so many different
chanteys -- such as "goin' 'round the Horn/wish ya never was born"
and "heard the old man say/go ashore and take yer pay".
Additionally, it was a prized chanteyman
who could surprise a laugh from the crew and thereby make the job seem
easier or inspire the men to work harder. Hugill, in his books and in
person, made reference to the obscenity in sea chanteys and how he was
forced to clean up the lyrics to get his work into print, sometimes
changing the whole feeling of the song. My two thoughts on this are
first, those days of oblivious censorship are hopefully long over. Secondly,
when the chanteyman did improvise using "plain" language,
(the chorus lines were almost always proper -- and much louder), it
was with a kind of forthright, honest, and jovial obscenity that makes
people laugh even when the songs are heard today.
Although the era of the full-rigged sailing
ship came to an end, many chanteys have survived to our great good fortune.
This occurred for a number of reasons. First, not all of the old-time
sailors were the irresponsible drifters portrayed in the songs who,
once ashore, got drunk and remained that way until their money was either
spent or lifted by some trollop. There were many who had families and
hurried home when their ships made port. As soon as the winter winds
began to blow, they made every effort to get shore jobs rather than
risk death by going aloft. Some signed onto southern cotton packets
heading for Mobile or New Orleans. Others went to the railroad construction
gangs, and some to the lumber camps along the east coast of America
and Canada. Naturally they brought their songs along with them and many
melodies and words were adapted and exchanged (see the remarkable derivation
of Clear The Track). Thus, the music was passed on to more and more
Secondly, many of the songs were and
still are so beautiful to hear that they were passed on even if there
was no practical use for them. Shenandoah is a wonderful example. This
haunting melody probably began with the American boatmen of the Ohio,
Missouri, and Mississippi rivers sometime in the 1840s. And it was so
widely appreciated by frontiersmen and settlers that it was carried
all across the country. Deepwater seamen probably heard it in the Gulf
ports of Mobile and New Orleans, "adjusted" it for use at
the capstan, and spread it across the seven seas. Today, historians
only venture to guess that the name Shenandoah is probably a corruption
of the name of a famous chief of the Oneida Indians, Skenandoah(6).
And songs like Blow The Man Down and Rolling Home will live as long
as men have voices to sing.
Among the sailors and people on shore
who loved the music were a number of scholars. This is another reason
for the survival of a wealth of chantey information. Men and women like
Stan Hugill, Joanna Colcord, William Doerflinger, and the poet Carl
Sandburg gave us volumes of material based upon their own experiences
as well as research. The definitive work on sea music belongs to Stan
Hugill(7), who for some time was also the last living chanteyman from
the days of commercial sail. Before passing on in 1992, he appeared
several times at The Mystic Seaport Sea Music Festival where he taught,
entertained, and pronounced judgment on the performers. The Ancient
Mariner Chanteymen were fortunate to have listened to and been listened
to by "God" Stan at Mystic in 1989. Upon hearing their rendition
of "Donkey Riding," He was heard to remark, "That's the
way that song 'oht-ta' be sung."
Frankly, throughout many years of listening
to different groups and performers, I have often wondered what kind
of voices those sailors who actually used chanteys had and how they
really sounded. From what I have been able to learn, the sound was inspiring
to all who heard it (see Away Rio and Johnny Come Down To Hilo). Smith
writes of visiting a Sailors' Home in northern England and being "very
agreeably surprised at the effect of some of these chanty choruses;
some of the men present had really good voices, and they sang with a
life and spirit, and with as much rhythmical accuracy as though they
were miles away on the briny ocean..."(3)
However, libraries filled with volumes
and maritime museums around the world would serve no purpose if not
for the ever growing number of devotees who love this form of music.
And it is nothing less than genuine love for the music that motivated
the Ancient Mariner Chanteymen to weekly practice, year after year to
return to Mystic Seaport -- at first to learn and eventually to perform
The Ancient Mariner Chanteymen have many
to thank for their inspiration. Chief among them is good friend and
mentor, Cliff Haslam, a right and proper English "chanteyman".
We wish everyone would have the opportunity to witness Cliff shake the
walls of a room as his booming bass baritone brings new life to an old
chantey. And in the next moment, to listen while he sings a sweet ballad
that would bring tears to the eyes of an executioner -- hardly a dry
eye in the room!
We owe thanks to those who brought the
Mystic festival to prominence, so we could "rub shoulders"
with talents like Louis Killen, Jeff Warner, Holdstock and McCleod,
and even Doerflinger and Hugill themselves. Our fondest hope is that
we might also inspire someone who can use this book to "do it our
-İHoward Hornstein, 1996 - 1998