SHANTIES AND SEA SONGS
It’s certainly not hard work for the singers of My Pop Choir when they launch into the lilting tune of Wellerman. But both the sea shanties and the sea songs we hear today owe a lot to hardworking sailors from centuries past aboard whaling ships.
Sailors performed their jobs, such as hauling in the lines as their ships departed, to a coordinated rhythm made easier by the shanties they sang.
To explore the meaning of “shanty,” we sought out Toronto’s Shantymen Pressgang Mutiny, a quartet that has travelled the world to perform and research shanty traditions.
According to Stefan Read, a member of the group: “What we think really defines shanties is their call and response nature, that they were originally used for work tasks and that they were improvisational.”
They were by custom performed a cappella as crew members could not be spared to fiddle while there was work to be done!
Here’s a track from Pressgang Mutiny’s first album demonstrating the rhythm of the shantyman calling and the crew responding – you can practically see them moving as a well-oiled crew, as the ship departs while they sing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=us87kkdSjps
“There would always be a stanza of response,” says Stefan,” but the shantyman’s job was to keep the crew engaged. When you were on your way out to sea that’s when things would be pretty polite.”
The improvisation would especially come when the ship was on its way back. “That’s when you would hear things about the captain, or perhaps the owner being cheap.”
The improvisational aspect of shanties applies to both words and harmonies, according to Stefan. “This is one form of singing where there aren’t any wrong notes – it’s the rhythm that’s important, getting it in time all together.”
“Their actual roots, as far as we have been able to trace them, are in West Africa and in AfroCaribbean and AfroAmerican singing,” he says. “It was probably picked up from the shore workers who would be loading things onto the ships.
And there is cross pollination from all over the world, sharing lyrics and sharing music.”
Strictly speaking, Wellerman, the tune recorded by Nathan Evans that started the 2021 TikTok craze, is a sea song, rather than a shanty. It does not adhere to the call and response structure and it was not used as a work song.
This type of music was sung after the work was done, perhaps up by the fo’c’sle (the living quarters below deck at the front of the ship). Rather than music to work by, these were songs for entertainment. Supposedly there was a sailor’s superstition that shanties could only be sung while working.
Stefan is quick to point out that there was lots of interest in shanties before 2021. Newfoundland’s Great Big Sea was singing shanties and sea songs from 1993 to 2016. He also points to fellow shanty groups Brise Glace (Quebec/Cape Breton), Before the Mast (New Brunswick), and the Yarmouth Shantymen (Nova Scotia), all singing currently.
The Canadian connection includes the Fundy Sea Shanty Festival in St. Martin’s, New Brunswick, which is being held for its second year from August 11-13, 2023. As well, La Fête des chants de marins will be held August 17-20 in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, Quebec.
There is also an interesting shanty connection with video gaming. “Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag used legitimate shanties recorded by Sean Dahger, a Montreal singer,” says Stefan. “And a U.K. group called The Longest Johns went viral with their music on the Sea of Thieves game.”
With their spirit of fun, sense of community and irresistible rhythms, it’s no wonder that shanties and sea songs remain popular around the world.
Pressgang Mutiny are Toronto's Shantymen, a quartet of dynamic musicians and tall ship sailors, who have toured extensively across the east coasts of Canada and the U.S. and performed at festivals in the U.K. and Europe. Pressgang Mutiny are Richard Kott, James McKie, Tim Pyron, and Stefan Read. Their podcast, The Shanty Show, is about to begin its second series. Check them out at www.pressgangmutiny.com.