The Allure of Sea Shanties

Everyone is suddenly talking about sea shanties. With COVID-19, work from home has become the reality for many people; isolation and disconnection from the outside world resulting.  Perhaps that is why sea shanties, songs meant to be sung in groups while working, have taken over the internet. On TikTok, a video sharing social media platform, users can “duet” and add their own video on top of another user’s, creating long chains of users singing in unison.   “The Wellerman,” a nineteenth century New Zealand whaling song, has been especially popular I even find myself humming songs like, “Blow the Man Down” while I am pulling objects from the stacks. There is a reason for this. Though often confused, what differentiates “sea shanties” or “chanties” from “sea songs” is the context in which they were sung. There are three types of shanties: short haul shanties, which are to the tune of quick, rhythmic pulling; halyard shanties for harder, more time intensive pulling with breaks; and capstan shanties for sustained tasks that do not involve work on the lines (Draskoy 2009). 

The timing of sea shanties makes the repetitive tasks of pushing, pulling, and heaving together easier. Some sea shanty experts argue that sea shanties lose their meaning when not sung while doing manual labor, but I have to argue that what we need now more than ever, is something to take our mind off our work and troubles and come together in camaraderie. What worked for the 19th century whalers, just might work for us.

Album cover of Lou Killen's Sea Chanteys
Lou Killen’s Sea Chanteys (1973). M074/2000-1 LD0722  

If you, like my roommates, are tired of hearing “The Wellerman,” luckily enough the Irish Music Archives at Burns Library has plenty of other sea shanties and ballads that sailors would have also sung. Though most of us have not travelled in almost a year, the songs of the sea are uniquely relatable, as we, like so many whalers and sailors, are alone, in small crews, longing for connection with each other through a shared history.  

“Row, Bullies, Row” is a capstan sea shanty that tells the story of a man who goes on a drinking binge and is “shanghai-ed”, a fairly common former practice in maritime cities that involved incapacitating a man, kidnapping him, and sailing away with him, forcing him to be a (typically not well paid) crew member. The jaunty song tells of all the places the man sees in his forced labor “from Liverpool to ‘Frisco” in the tow of the “Liverpool judies.” Judies was originally Liverpool slang for girls, but came to be used on ships to refer to pleasant winds. Lou Killen’s version from his 1968 album Sea Chanteys fills the listener with pep and, naturally, the happiness to not be the unfortunate main character of the song. The song is a capstan shanty, meaning sailors wouldn’t have sung the song while hauling ropes, but instead while doing longer tasks on whaling ships, such as rowing (Hugill, 1984, 306). 

Illustration in book of men rowing on a small boat as a whale attacks them
Rowing on a whaling ship from Whale Ships and Whaling Scenes as portrayed by Benjamin Russel by Allan Forbes (1955). 03-44385 Boston

“Rolling Down to Old Maui” is not a sea shanty, but a forebitter, a song sung for pleasure, named for the ”forebits” of the ship on which the singers might sit while entertaining their crewmates (Hugill,1977,120). I found it on A.L. Loyd’s Leviathan!: Ballads and Songs of the Whaling Trade. The artist explains on the back of the record that the Pacific whalers would travel to Maui twice per year: in March and November, heading there from the bitter Arctic. The song carries the hope that Bostonians feel each March, looking forward to good weather and fun. As we come out of the woods of winter, the lines of “six hellish months have passed away in the cold Kamchatha Sea, but now we’re bound from the Artic ground, rolling down to Maui.” ring true. 

Album cover showing boat being capsized by a whale as sailors lunge for safety
A.L. Loyd’s Leviathan!: Ballads and Songs of the Whaling Trade. M074/2000-1 LD0761 

New England has a rich history in the whaling trade and as we listen to the songs the crews of whaling vessels may have sung, we can both accomplish our work and dream of far away lands as we continue to have hope for the future. 

–Erin Sheedy, Burns Library Student Assistant, Boston College Class of 2022

Sources Consulted:

Draskoy. A. (n.d). Shanties and Sea Songs. Retrieved March 1,2021  from

Stan Hugill, Shanties and Sailors’ Songs (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1969).

Stan Hugill, Songs of the Sea (Maidenhead, England: McGraw-Hill, 1977), 120. 

Stan Hugill, Shanties from the Seven Seas, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 306. 

Harold Whates. “The Background of Sea Shanties.” Music & Letters 18, no. 3 (1937): 259-64.  Accessed February 12, 2021.

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