What is a shanty?

Where does the name come from?

Well one school of thought is that the word has its roots in the Latin word Cantare thence to the French word Chanter.  The word shanty emerged in the early to mid-19th century in reference to an appreciably distinct genre of work-song, developed especially on merchant vessels, that had come to prominence in the decades prior to the American Civil War.  Shanty songs were developed to synchronize and thereby optimize labour, in what had then become larger vessels having smaller crews and operating on stricter schedules. The practice of singing shanties eventually became ubiquitous internationally and throughout the era of wind-driven Packet and Clipper Ships.
The work onboard ship was very hard and very monotonous.  Music and singing galvanised and synchronised the crew’s efforts when it came to physical work wringing every last drop of power out of men who were usually cold, tired and under-fed.  Anchors had to be raised from the sea-bed, sails had to be raised up the mast, bilges had to be pumped out to prevent leaky boats from sinking and decks had to be holy-stoned to remove stains from the woodwork of blood, tar and salt.
Listen now to an example in the aptly titled shanty Heave Her Up Me Bully Boys!
To co-ordinate and concentrate the physical efforts of the crew, songs were introduced which can be described as ‘Call and response’ songs whereby the leader or Shanty-man, would sing out a phrase which would then be repeated by the crew.  The songs had a clear and regular beat and on every beat the crew would haul on Halyards or ropes, push on capstan bars or operate the bilge pumps.  The tunes were always simple, catchy and easy to remember.  The words were often bawdy and humorous, designed to take the minds of the crew away from the back-breaking nature of the work.
In our group, to give a little more musical balance we have split the group into two sections the A’s and the B’s…..in certain songs the A’s will acta s the shanty-man and the B’s will respond and vice versa.  You will notice the A’s are typically young, virile, good-looking and musically magnificent whereas the B’s are largely old, broken and tone-deaf……I happen to be an A.
I am kidding, there is no real difference between us in fact it could be argued that at their vast age the fact that they have oxygen enough to stand and sing is pretty miraculous.  Here’s a good example of a call and response shanty
Bully in the Alley
Shanties can be traced back as far as the early 1600s but really came into wide-spread use in the 19th Century and coincided with the global expansion of the British Empire.  They are often wrongly associated with the Royal Navy whereas, they were more widely used by the Merchant Navy, in particular the Honourable East Indian Company whose fleet of ships was significantly bigger (and better funded) than those of the Royal Navy.  The Royal Navy also frowned on shanties as they precluded vital orders being heard on deck.
The fact that they were used so much more in the commercial or Merchant Navy explains why so many of the songs deal with the hunting of Whales…..that’s Whales with an H in there….I’m not talking about Welsh people……although…..
Here’s a song about whaling ……. The Bonny Ship the Diamond
Another example of a whaling song became famous during lockdown when a postman called Nathan Evans recorded a shanty called The Wellerman.  It went viral and suddenly shanties were no longer the preserve of old men in stripey tops or Fairisle sweaters but surprisingly were deemed to be cool by vast numbers of millennials who made Mr Evans a huge sum of money.  We had been singing this song for 10 years before Mr Evans recorded it and it hasn’t made us a penny…..but we’re not bitter…..at all.
The Wellerman is a New Zealand folk song, which refers to 19th century right whale hunting.
Whales were big business at this time: the streets of London were illuminated by burning whale oil, and whale oil and baleen (the bristly plates some whales use to filter their food) were used in products from corsets to umbrellas and soap. Right whales were so named because whalers thought they were the ‘right’ whales or good whales to hunt – slow moving, they swim close to the shore, yield large amounts of oil, meat and baleen, and float when they are killed.
The first shore-based whaling stations in Aotearoa New Zealand were established in the 1820s. 'Wellermen' were the ships owned by Weller Brothers of Sydney who supplied provisions to the whalers, including, yes, "sugar and tea and rum". There doesn’t seem to have been a ship called Billy of Tea, but a ‘billy’ was a metal can used for boiling water.
Try to resist joining in with……The Wellerman
Ships companies were frequently multi-national in their make-up with British, German, American, Scandinavian and African sailors all serving cheek-by-jowl in their various Starboard and larboard messes.  Shanties were very much an international form of music which has added a wide variety of songs to the Shanty canon of work
Sailors were often pressed into service against their will by the infamous Press Gangs of the Royal Navy who had no qualms about bludgeoning unsuspecting young men (and quite a few old ones) and dragging their unconscious bodies onboard ship where they would awake miles from home and be absent for many years, oftentimes, never to return.
When abroad, the Captains of ships could not risk allowing the crew off the ship whilst in port for fear of them deserting.  This led to the crew singing songs about the things they missed most, namely wicked women, strong drink, wicked women, good food and err……wicked women……can you see a theme here….?
You are all too young to remember but the Salvation Army had a slogan at the turn of the 20th Century which stated ‘Salvation Army…..we save wicked women!  And some wag had scrawled on the bottom of the poster ‘Well then save one for me!’
Here’s a shanty about the wicked women of New York, again, aptly titled
 New York Gals….!
Each type of shanty was traditionally linked to the job at hand.
'Short drag' shanties were designed for short, hard bouts of pulling.  The well-known 'Drunken Sailor' is a type of short drag shanty and you will hear that later, it’s a 'hand over hand' shanty with two or more pulls in each phrase.  A song like ‘Haul on the Bowlin’ is a good example of this: every time the crew shouted 'haul' during the chorus they could give the rope another hard tug:
This is what we mean……Haul on the bow'lin

 

Long haul or 'halyard shanties' by contrast are songs for more sustained periods of pulling. Shanties like 'Blow the Man Down' included multiple rambling verses: the crew could rest while the shanty-man displayed his lyrical skill:
Come all ye young fellows that follow the sea,
Way-hay, blow the man down,
And pray pay attention and listen to me,
Oh give us some time to blow the man down.
Yes I am sure you all remember it.  The youngest member of our boy-band, Colin, will now come amongst you to instruct you in how to participate in this famous shanty.
Blow the Man Down
Other types include capstan and pumping shanties, designed for periods of relatively easy but continuous effort.
The more you listen to them, the more you pick out the timings and the calls and responses.  Listen to the one about Napoleon, 'Boney'. It begins with, 'Boney was a warrior,' and then everyone yells back, 'Way, hey, ya!' It keeps you in time when you're pulling lines, but it also keeps you motivated."
Boney Was a Warrior
The more lyrical ones are different and were perhaps used when sailors were relaxing in the evenings and in a gentler and perhaps home-sick mood. There are lovely ones such as ‘Leave her Johnny’ and the Mingulay Boat Song which were more reflective songs rather than work songs.
Listen now to The Mingulay Boat Song
Certain tunes could be used for a variety of tasks, tunes such as:  Fire Down Below, Johnny Come Down to Hilo, Aboard a Man O’ War, Highland Laddie (also same tune as Riding on a Donkey) Bully in the Alley, Good Morning, Ladies, All, Pay Me the Money Down, Alabama, John Cherokee, and "Heave Away (My Johnnies)
This is another example of a nautical song rather than a shanty.  Again, it features a lady of uncertain virtue who preyed upon unsuspecting sailors with the sole intention of parting them from the pay packets.
This one is called Maggie May……and no it’s not the Rod Stewart one!
A song now from the port of Bristol which deals with the illegal trafficking of contraband good such as Brandy to avoid paying the duty to the Excise Men.
Listen now to The Corncrake
Why do we Sing shanties today….?  Simply put, because they are bloody marvellous and a joy to sing.  If you go to a shanty festival in places such as Falmouth, Teignmouth, Brancaster, Harwich or Tewksbury you will find pubs packed with people having a great time…..pubs packed with people who didn’t realise they knew so learnt at school….pubs packed with good-natured, patient people who are happy to wait for ages for their drinks because they are 10 deep at the bar as folk enjoy the performances……pubs packed with people of all ages, social background, religious beliefs and sexual persuasion…..we regularly sing for the LBGTQIARNLI ….Shanties bring people together.
Time now to finish this set with a barn-storming performance of one you will certainly know
What shall we do with the Drunken Sailor