Songs of the Sea

This page was last updated on 03/10/05.

A Brief Introduction    --    Songs on this site    --   Information Resources    --    Nautical Performers

The background music is Spanish Ladies. Sequenced by Lesley Nelson-Burns.

"...I soon got used to this singing, for the sailors never touched a rope without it. Sometimes, when no one happened to strike up, and the pulling, whatever it might be, did not seem to be getting forward very well, the mate would always say, 'Come men, can't any of you sing? Sing now and raise the dead.' And then some one of them would begin, and if every man's arms were as much relieved as mine by the song, and he could pull as much better as I did, with such a cheering accompaniment, I am sure the song was well worth the breath expended on it. It is a great thing in a sailor to know how to sing well, for he gets a great name by it from the officers, and a good deal of popularity among his shipmates. Some sea captains, before shipping a man, always ask him whether he can sing out at a rope." 

-Herman Melville, Redburn,  (1849) 


A Brief Introduction to Songs of the Sea

Let's start by making a distinction:

Shanties, or chanteys, are work songs. Sailors have long used them to establish a rhythm for coordinated effort, make work onboard less grueling, and to pass time (I relate these age-old tunes to the marching and running cadences I sang in my Army days. Shanties were often tailored to a  specific task, e.g., pump shanties, halyard shanties, capstan shanties, etc., depending upon the duration and frequency of the effort needed. More on types of shanties

Sea songs, as opposed to shanties, are songs that were, and still are, sung for recreation. These are more like what we might call ballads.

More information on types of shanties and sea songs is here.

Both sea songs and shanties have been sung for just about as long as there have been sailors.  Many of these songs have been passed down from generation to generation. They have often been adapted to use in various regions, and many of them are quite "salty."

These provide a form of historical record of the culture of the sea -- not in a factual, historical sense, but in a cultural, folklore sense. In the Preface of my book on Long Island lighthouses, I stated the importance of separating fact from folklore -- too few authors make that distinction -- but admitted that "folklore has an important place in culture." On this part of the site, and in stage performances, I'll embrace the folklore of the sea as expressed through the music of the mariner.

I consider this type of music to be a truly international form of music. You'll hear hints of various cultures in the music and lyrics. A sailor from, say, New England may have picked up a tune while in port in Ireland, and adapted it to some lyrics he wrote about a trip to the South Pacific. This song, if it was good enough, would be picked up by other sailors on board and in the various ports. As one might expect of songs that literally traveled around the world on sailing ships, there are often several versions of a song, with the lyrics, melody, tempo, and even title, changing as it was adapted. These changes could have been made on purpose, or due to a  faulty (or foggy) memory, or even to match the instruments available on a  specific ship.

An interesting aspect in the preservation of these oral traditions is the fact that some of them, in their original states, were too vulgar or politically incorrect for modern audiences, especially children. Again, there's a parallel to the old army cadences, which I saw changing in my military years (anyone know the cadence about the "yellow bird with a yellow bill?"). Censoring these songs is revising history, which most will agree is wrong. But that's a problem for elsewhere, as I won't put the real nasty stuff here. I do hope that these old versions are saved somewhere, though, to preserve a more realistic, if ugly, reflection of the people and times that created these traditions.

Modern automation has done much to replace the songs of sailors with the whirr of computers and clicks of switches, much like the way GPS, LORAN, automated fog signals and other technologies have replaced lightkeepers. Sea songs and chanteys help to preserve the lifestyle of sailing ship mariners in the same way that books and web sites preserve the story of the lightkeeper lifestyle. But I don't believe we should ever stop there in our education. Just as reading a book on lighthouses or surfing the web is a far cry from visiting a lighthouse, reading about shantes, or even listening to a few on a CD, is no substitute for hearing them performed live by musicians with an understanding of, and respect for, the maritime tradition. I encourage you to seek out a good maritime band at least once (preferably performing at a maritime site), and to sit down, listen to the music, and imagine it being sung by "old salts." I bet you'll be hooked and will find yourself humming the tune of Fiddler's Green, Acres of Clams, or What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor at home or work.


Songs currently on this site

(I am including lyrics and notes on some of my favorite songs, and some that mention lighthouses. Keep in mind that there are often many variations of a specific song.)


Acres of Clams

All For Me Grog

The Drunken Sailor

The Greenland Whale Fisheries

The Keeper of the Eddystone Light

The Mermaid Song

Fiddler's Green

Blow The Man Down


Resources for more information

International Shanty and Seasong Association

Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman
by William Main Doerflinger
ISBN 0-916638-40-5

Music of the Sea
by David Proctor
ISBN 0-11-290520X

Shanties from the Seven Seas
by Stan Hugill
ISBN 0-913372-70-6

Boxing the Compass: Sea Songs and Shanties
By Roy Palmer
ISBN 0-9540682-0-3

Nautical Music Performers

Sampawams Creek
Long Island, NY. 631-277-1180.
Sampawams Creek plays at various Long Island venues, including lighthouse cruises, maritime museums, the Fire Island Lighthouse, historical societies, libraries and just about anywhere they can. The group is anchored by brothers Tim and Mike Fitall, with Ken "The Rocket" Korb and myself. Instruments include guitar, banjo, mandolin, spoons, tin whistle, harmonica, and others.
The CD Sea Songs and Shanties was released in 2004. A second is due in 2006.

The Shantyman E-mail:
Joshua Jenkins, AKA The Shantyman, has released two CD's: Pirate's Life and Ramblin' Sailor.

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All the text, code and photographs on this page are © 1998 - 2005 Robert G. Müller. Please don't copy any text, code or photographs from this site without my written permission. Thanks for understanding and respecting my work. :-)

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