A sea shanty, chantey, or chanty is a type of work song that was once commonly sung to accompany labor on board large merchant sailing vessels. The term chantey most accurately refers to a specific style of work song belonging to this historical repertoire. The words and music have been as simple and direct, wild and spirited, salty and rough as a North Atlantic Gale. Songs were traditional, not written down, and evolved as all folk songs do out of experience and needs of men.
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. In the short-drag and halyard chanteys, which required hauling 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 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.
Listen to “Cape Cod Girls” performed by the Ancient Mariner Chanteymen.
The switch to steam-powered ships and the use of machines for shipboard tasks, by the end of the 19th century, meant that chanteys gradually ceased to serve a practical function. Their use as work songs became negligible in the first half of the 20th century. Information about chanteys was preserved by veteran sailors and by folklorist song-collectors, and their written and audio-recorded work provided resources that would later support a revival in singing chanteys as a land-based leisure activity.
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”.