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Pirates and Sea Shanties
By Cindy Vallar

When we think of pirates and music, our first thoughts drift to sea shanties, such as the one Calvin Heyward wrote.1 The first one I recall learning in music class many years ago is “Blow the Man Down,” which is one most people know. Those who are more piratically inclined, however, may first think of a different shanty.Jim Hawkins & Long John
Fifteen men on the dead man's chest—
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

Drink and the devil had done for the rest—

Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!"

These lines appear in chapter one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. “Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!” is the shanty’s chorus, and in an 1887 letter to a journalist, Stevenson wrote it “was his own invention entirely; founded on the name of one of the Buccaneer Islets.”2 (Amrhein, 227)

So what is a sea shanty (also spelled chantey)? A shanty is a work song sung aboard sailing ships to help lighten the tedium of the seamen’s day-to-day labor. Before a ship set sail, the crew chose one man – known as the shantyman (also spelled chanteyman) – to lead them in singing shanties. Whatever melody he sang, it always matched the rhythm of the task that needed doing. A fiddler might accompany the singing of a shanty, although they were often sung without accompaniment.

Although “shanty” is a relatively modern term, work songs have been part of life for a long time, and this is true in the maritime world, too. “The earliest reference to a sing-out – the wild yell seamen would raise when hauling a rope hand-over-hand, a sort of embryo shanty –” dates to the fifteenth century when Henry VI sat on the throne of England. (Shanties, 2) It recounts the passage of a ship bound for Compostella, where the pilgrims aboard wished to visit the shrine of St. James.

Anone the master commaundeth fast,
To hys shyp-men in all the hast,
To dresse hem some about the mast,
Theyr takelyng to make.

With ‘howe! hissa!’ then they cry,
‘What howte! mate, thou stondyst to ny,
They felow may nat hale the by’;
Thus they begyn to crake.

A boy or tweyne anone up-styen,
And overthwarte the sayle-yerde lyen; –
‘Y-how! taylia!’ the remenaunte cryen,
And pull with all theyr myght.

Now the Old Man gives the order for the crowd,

To get to their stations (about the mast) and make sail,
‘Haul away! Hoist ’er up!’ they cry,
‘Hey mate, keep clear o’ me!
Can’t haul with you blowin’ down me bleedin’ neck!’
Croaked the older shellbacks.
A couple of deckboys climb aloft,
And overhaul the buntlines,
‘Yo ho! Tail on the fall!’ the rest sing out,
And pull with all their beef. (Shanties, 2-3)
Felix Fabri, a Dominican friar, wrote about his passage to Palestine in 1493. In the account, he spoke about the routine aboard the Venetian galley on which he sailed.
Galley common in Mediterranean c. 16th

Under these again there are others who are called mariners who sing when work is going on, because work at sea is very heavy, and is only carried on by a concert between one who sings out orders and the labourers who sing in response.
(Shanties, 3)

The earliest examples of what we would recognize as shanties can be found in Complaynt of Scotland (1549). This song was used to raise the anchor:

Vayra, veyra, vayra, veyra,
Gentil gallantis veynde;
I see hym, veynde, I see hym,
Porbossa, porbossa,
Hail all and ane, hail all and ane;
Hail hym up til us,
Hail hym up til us.

Another pertained to heaving on the bowline, an important rope on early ships during a head wind.

Hou, hou, pulpela, pulpela,
Boulena, boulena,
Darta, darta,
Hard out strif.

While these are difficult for modern readers to decipher, this one “for hoisting the lowyard” is easily recognizable.

Afore the wind, afore the wind,
God send, God send,
Fair weather, fair weather,
Many prizes, many prizes. (Shanties, 3-4)

What we think of as sea shanties began to appear in the nineteenth century, and they fall into two distinct categories: capstan shanties and halyard shanties. Think of the capstan as a cylindrical barrel into which men can insert a series of wooden bars. When a heavy object, such as an anchor, need to be lifted, the men then walk around the capstan while pushing against these wooden bars. As they walk, the cable attached to the heavy object winds around the barrel, lifting the object. Singing capstan shanties produce a sustained or continuous rhythm to complete the work, and the beat may be similar to a waltz or a march. The call-response of a capstan shanty has a longer solo than a halyard shanty, and the chorus may last for more than two lines. Examples of capstan shanties are “Shenandoah” and “Rio Grande.”3

Main deck capstan on USS ConstellationCapstan on gundeck of USS
Views of the capstan aboard the USS Constellation: (left) Main or Spar deck and (right) Gun deck
A halyard (also spelled halliard) is “a rope or tackle used for raising or lowering a sail, yard, spar, or flag.” (King, 228) When singing a halyard shanty, certain words are accented so the men pull together at the same time. After the shantyman’s solo, the chorus is usually one line long. “Blow the Man Down,” for instance, is an example of a halyard song. When the men sing “hay” and “down” in the chorus, they haul (pull) on the lines attached to whatever they are hoisting: “To me, way, hay, blow the man down!” (Webb, 600)

Regardless of which type of shanty was sung, they all had a similar pattern where the one person sang short verses, followed by the men singing a boisterous chorus. Although the tune never changed, the words of a shanty could, especially if the shantyman wanted to include tidbits about a local personality or needed a longer song to complete the task. In that case, the shantyman had to be good at improvisation so that the work and song continued without a break.
Working on a shipShanties were sung aboard merchant ships, not those of the navy where there were more than enough men to complete the work. The owners of merchantmen – especially after the Napoleonic Wars –wanted to make the greatest profit with the least amount of expense, so they often hired only the minimal number of crewmen needed to work their vessels. These men were permitted and encouraged to sing while they worked to compensate for the loss in manpower. Singing shanties added coordination to the work, so it was achieved more quickly. These songs were particularly prevalent aboard English and American ships, following the War of 1812 when packet ships ferried passengers and crew back and forth across the Atlantic on regular schedules. Early shanties were sometimes adapted from older, bawdy songs, such as the “Maid of Amsterdam,” but the earliest shanties designed for specific work on a ship arose aboard the Black Ball Line.

Sea shanties were work songs, so they were rarely sung when seamen had free time. The advent of steam-powered ships eventually led to the disappearance of the sea shanty aboard ships. As time passed, it became more and more difficult to find able-bodied seamen who knew how to sail wind-powered ships. While sea shanties in the heyday of the clipper ships denoted pride in what they did, later shanties sung by men less qualified devolved into songs of frustration over long hours, cruel treatment from officers, and low wages. After 1875, for the most part, shanties became part of the repertoire sung at parties or a sing-along.

While we associate pirates with sea shanties, shanty is a term they didn’t know. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “shanty” enters written English around the mid 1800s, which means its use in oral English dates back a century before then – at least two decades after the most prolific period in pirate history, the Golden Age of Piracy (1713-1726). Does this mean pirates didn’t sing shanty-like songs? No, they probably did. They simply didn’t call them shanties.

1. Calvin Heyward first shared his original shanty, "Who Drinks with Blackbeard?", with me in June 2013. Since I'd been collecting information about pirates and music, I asked him if I could share his shanty with readers of Pirates and Privateers.
2. While Stevenson wrote these lines, a man named Ewing Allison later expanded the shanty into a poem that was originally published as “Derelict.”
3. For more information on the origins of “Shenandoah,” click here.
For more information, I recommend the following resources:
Amrhein, John. Treasure Island: The Untold Story. New Maritime Press, 2012.

Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Dover, 1999.

Frank, Stuart M. “Ballads & Chanteys,” Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History 1:243-249. Oxford, 2007.

Hitchcock, Champion Ingraham. The Dead Men’s Song: Being the Story of a Poem and a Reminiscent Sketch of Its Author. 1914.
King, Dean. A Sea of Words: A Lexicon and Companion to the Complete Seafaring Tales of Patrick O’Brian. Henry Holt, 2000.
Konstam, Angus. Blackbeard. John Wiley & Sons, 2006.

Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea edited by Peter Kemp. Oxford, 1976.

Shanties from the Seven Seas collected by Stan Hugill. Mystic Seaport, 2003.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. Treasure Island. The Baldwin Project. [visited 8/15/2013]

Webb, Robert Lloyd. “Seafarer’s Music,” Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History 2:600-604. Oxford, 2007.

Copyright © 2013 Cindy Vallar

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