You don't need to be a sailor to put these songs to work
I bought Stan Hugill's book a few years back, thinking it would be fun to learn some authentic shanties with my young kids (we are avid sailors). I quickly found that there's not a whole lot of authentic shanties that can be taught to a young kid without quite a bit of "explaining", as in "Let's just not worry too much about the ladies of Timbuktu ok kids?..."
Fascinating stuff, but a pity you didn't mention Stan Rogers, the Canadian songwriter who wrote one of the best shanties ever. If you have a second, I think you'll find this link well worth your time.
Dana's, Two Years Before the Mast, read at a young age, convinced me that I never wanted to work as a seaman. Being on a troop ship, to and from Korea, solidified my decision.
Of all the things I thought I’d read about today, I’d never have guessed sea shanties would be on the list. Brilliant 👏
Canadian singer Stan Rogers wrote a number of songs in the spirit of the old shanties, such as "Barrett's Privateers" and "Northwest Passage", that easily could have been used in the olden times.
One of the few albums my father bought for our cakebox turntable was Burl Ives' "Down to the Sea in Ships" released in 1956. I still find myself singing to myself either "What Do You Do With A Drunken Sailor" or "Blow Ye Winds in the Morning" and its been 50 years since I've heard the record!
Yes, in the past, repetitive physical labor was often accompanied by the participants' singing. A good example may be found in the final scene of Akira Kurosawa's movie Seven Samurai, which shows the villagers planting rice while singing to the beat of a drum.
Ted, you should come join me at The Griswold Inn in Essex, CT some Monday night. It's Sea Shanty night! https://www.nytimes.com/2023/09/16/nyregion/connecticut-sea-chanteys.html
In my work trying to understand the role of art in society this fills in a gap very nicely...we all know of negro spirituals sung by slaves in the field and how this evolved into R&B, Blues and Jazz and merged with white field workers folk music and together became rock n’ roll which in my view has been the most successful art form in human history in terms of humans all throughout the earth partaking in it.
But these shanty’s are a more specific work related form and I imagine it creating a culture that held the workers together while keeping them in sync and mentally refreshed in the labor. You can imagine a seaman stuck on land for an extended time longing to once again join in these songs and work with his mates.
There is a corollary with religious music being the fun part of the tedious or boring religious service and that’s the one more of us now have experienced. I also experienced a similar thing as a young military marcher in the Civil Air Patrol where we sang classic marching songs to keep us in step and they really created a nice bond between us all. Another version is singing on the bus with a sports team or church group to tide the time of the long journey, ninety nine bottles of beer.
I’m so glad for this revival and that Ted is well prepared to stoke it. I wonder if modern work spaces could use a dose of this to bring people together...could be a management angle to help bring workers back to the office...not that I’d want to inspire the opposition.
One of the most beautiful artistic and communal experiences of my life was the three months I spent in French Polynesia traveling alongside the local youth and our outside team throughout the island nation and in the national church they sing these songs which are very complex in harmony and everyone knows their part and they’ve all been singing them their whole lives, so when you’re sitting there in the middle of the congregation, everyone dressed in white, the sun streaming in the open air church, the richness of the harmonies all around you are just astounding, like nothing you’ve ever experienced before and the very musical requirement of these interweaved harmonies requires you and your contribution and so you earn and fulfill your place in the community. I’m sure the psychological benefits are immense.
It made me want to recreate it in an American context, which I was working on, until my liturgical career was cut short by the loss of religious faith. But the desire to see community enlivened by music remains...really by all art forms. It has lead me to write about art and love and community.
When I was 7 or 8 my parents were founding members of a folk club in Auckland, New Zealand, which is still going. Sea shanties were popular then, and probably still now. My first thought was Haul Away Joe, when I saw the title of this post. We built a 54' ketch at a local boatyard and there were many yachties who also enjoyed singing shanties around a bonfire at night. One of my friends there designed and built a 40' catamaran out of marine ply and scraps that looked great, but everyone was worried about its safety. Dick Taylor was a man of short stature who made his living delivering yachts around the world, or moving them for their owners, mostly solo. He launched his cat and will have spent many hours singing shanties to himself. Sadly a year after the launch he was reported lost at sea, and has never been seen or heard from since. He died doing what he loved.
I’m nearly as impressed with your book collection as with this article - Good Lord!
I logged in to substack to find a good story
The next thing I knew I was reading Ted Gioia
This man has made his name as The Honest Broker
As honest an honest read could ever be
As a little kid some sixty years ago who would have been challenged to read something at the level of Hardy Boys, I snuck away from my classmates in the library and grabbed a grownup book. Two Years Before the Mast took me out of my small world, around the Horn, and into a life of reading worthwhile works. I've often remembered the thrill of the journey reading that book and wanted to read it again as an elder, but long since had forgotten the title. What a thrill to see it here, thank you! I'll be reading it to my wife soon.
Ted, I know you´re fascinated by work songs, so please check the milking songs of the Venezuelan Llanos. The most famous is Tonada de Luna Llena by Simon Díaz https://youtu.be/aJ5hf5aYiaU?si=IkI2CrRj1eKnGoXI famously covered by Caetano Veloso https://youtu.be/SIRJBB7Bb5k?si=OLPwmnFtJBTrpfb4 . These kind of songs are used to give a peaceful ambient to cows to deliver the milk. Simón Diaz has another work songs, and Venezuelan folk music has other work songs, for fishers, for black farm workers, etc. Hope you and the people here could enjoy these.
Thank you. With every fiber of my being. This article not only filled me with joy, but I finally felt like someone out there shares my love of sailor’s songs.
My boba fides: II am 76. I am a career Navy Man’s daughter. I have his sailboat. I have lived near the ocean all my life until my husband land-locked me for his job. We sail (fresh water and ocean) and I would not own seaside property if you paid me although my husband “always wanted” some. (I convinced him that he would hate the constant $$ upkeep and one day he would more than regret it.) I have several books on Sea Shanties and many recordings from the sanitized but harmonious Robert Shaw Chorale version to the much spicier, probably bootlegged, cassette tape variety. I usually hum “Song of the Volga Boatman” to myself when I am working on a repetitive laborious task (swabbing the deck in the kitchen, cleaning out stalls in the barn or scrubbing the head.) I have ships bells on my iPhone for crying out loud.
Who would have thought the Shanty was making a comeback? You have shown me another good purpose for You-Tube. Thanks for the links. Music does need to be heard and not just read or seen. Heh heh. I do have a book whose title is “Military Justice is to Justice as Military Music is to Music. Hmm. I would love to read your take on that last part.
Written in the last 50 years by Tom Lewis, this one is a dandy:
Oh Lord above, send down a dove
with wings as sharp as razors
to cut the throats of them there blokes
what sells bad beer to sailors.