American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

SEA MUSIC. In the narrowest sense, “sea music” refers to music sung or played by people who work in the maritime trades: deepwater and coastal merchant sail, fishing, whaling, or the navy. The term is frequently expanded to include the music of coastal communities and members of occupations dependent on the sea for their livelihood, music sung and played by emigrants and passengers, and songs of river, lake, and canal life and work. Folk and popular music based on nautical themes written by non-seagoing people and even the nonnautical music that sailors heard in port and then took to sea can also be considered “sea music.”

Sailors’ music enjoyed a heyday during the nineteenth century. Songs from this period can be roughly divided into two types: songs for work and songs for pleasure. The term “chantey” (also spelled “chanty,” “shanty,” or “shantey”) refers specifically to work songs sung at sea to accompany various shipboard tasks: heaving up to the anchor, hauling lines to raise and adjust sails, pumping ship, and “tossing the bunt” when furling square sails. “Chantey” is always pronounced with the soft “sh” sound, and this spelling is favored by those who connect the term to the French command, “Chan- tez” (sing!). The etymology of the term is uncertain, as it has not been found in print before the mid-nineteenth century; consequently, it is unlikely to have come into general use before the early nineteenth century. There is limited evidence for the use of nautical work songs in English before the nineteenth century, although Roger Abrahams in Deep the Water, Shallow the Shore (1974) and others provide evidence for a significant work song tradition among people of African descent along the eastern and southern coasts of the United States and in the Caribbean.* These songs were used especially for cargo handling and rowing as well as for other nonmaritime tasks. See, for example, the compact disc by the Menhaden Chanteymen, Won’t You Help Me to Raise ’Em: Authentic Net-Hauling Songs from an African American Fishery (1990).

The inauguration of the Black Ball Line, scheduled transatlantic packet service, in 1818 signaled economic changes that eventually reduced the size of crews on merchant ships. Smaller crews and the mixing of sailors from various cultures aboard ship (including, importantly, African Americans,* West Indians, and Irish) resulted in the flowering of the chantey tradition. “Blow the Man Down,” “Shenandoah,” “Rio Grande,” “Hanging Johnny,” and “Sally Brown” are among the best-known chanteys today, but hundreds of others existed. Chanteying was largely confined to square-rigged merchant vessels and was little used or nonexistent on naval vessels, fishing schooners, and fore-and-aft-rigged coastal traders. The chantey tradition reached its peak in the second half of the nineteenth century and slowly died, as a working genre, with the decline of commercial sail in the early twentieth century. However, in the West Indies and aboard fishing vessels, songs were still used to lighten work into the 1950s and 1960s.

Chanteys share a number of characteristics. The rhythm of shipboard work generally dictates the form of the song, thus setting the tempo or indicating where the pulls or pushes (“hauls” and “heaves” to sailors) are to come. Chanteys are often classified according to the jobs at which they are used (halyard chanteys, capstan chanteys, pumping chanteys) because of the necessity of matching the rhythm of the music with the motions involved in the work. They also provide entertainment and relief from the monotony of long, laborious tasks by incorporating music into the work.

The songs vary greatly in performance. Depending on the task at hand, a given song may be shortened, lengthened, quickened, or slowed. As tools to help accomplish work, they are valued for their efficacy rather than their beauty. Some claim that a chantey is “as good as ten men on a line.” While some chanteys have story lines, often the lyrics are drawn from a common repertoire of couplets and rhymes that can be used interchangeably in a large number of songs. Any chantey might have numerous versions of both melody and lyrics.

In many crews, a few individuals would quickly be identified as the favored song leaders, or “chanteymen,” early in a voyage. Their qualifications included a good repertoire, the ability to set the rhythm and “feel” of the song to help the men most effectively combine their efforts, a sense of which song would suit the mood of the crew, and an ability to improvise new lyrics. This last qualification often related to another essential function of the chantey: without officially complaining, it allowed the crew to voice opinions about their treatment by the officers, the condition of the vessel, or the quality of their food all within earshot of the captain or mates. While complaints in chantey lyrics were general in nature, application to the specific problem mentioned would be obvious. This served as an important emotional and social release for the crew while making their viewpoint known to the officers.

Also related to the “complaint” aspect of chanteys were the few ceremonial songs, such as “The Dead Horse,” “Leave Her, Johnny, Leave Her,” or “Salt Horse,” which were sometimes sung at specific points in the voyage. Chanteys such as “Shenandoah” or “Rolling Home” could be reserved for raising anchor in the last port of call on a voyage, when the ship was homeward bound.

In their off-duty hours, sailors sang what they referred to as “main-hatch songs,” “fo’c’s’le songs,” or “forebitters” (when off-watch, the foremast hands would often gather at the forebitts, posts near the bow used for mooring the ship). This repertoire included naval ballads, love songs, patriotic songs, minstrel songs, sentimental songs, occupational songs such as whaling and fishing ballads, and other popular music of the time. Dance tunes and songs from a variety of cultures also found their way into the repertoire of American sailors. Some sailors collected songs, while others made their own and wrote them down in diaries or journals, sometimes performing them for their shipmates.

Deepwater sailor songs were occasionally published in popular music collections in the late nineteenth century, but entire collections of American sailor songs by folk-music scholars did not appear until the 1924 publication of Roll and Go: Songs of American Sailormen by Joanna Colcord.* Later collections include Frank Shay’s Iron Men and Wooden Ships (1948), William Main Doerflinger’s Shantymen and Shantyboys (1951), folksinger Burl Ives’ Sea Songs of Sailing, Whaling, and Fishing (1956), the posthumous publication of Chanteying aboard American Ships (1962) by Frederick Pease Harlow,* Gale Huntington’s Songs the Whalemen Sang (1964), and Abrahams’ Deep the Water, Shallow the Shore. Harlow’s work is the single most authoritative source on the practice of chanteying. Its exact and vivid descriptions of chanteys at work are derived from the author’s own experience on nineteenth-century square-riggers during the heyday of chanteying. Another comprehensive work is Shanties from the Seven Seas (1961) by Englishman Stan Hugill (1906-1992). It is the single most extensive collection of chanteys and, like Harlow’s book, is informed by the author’s own experience.

The inland waterways of America had their own musical traditions. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, working their way up the Missouri River, had a French Canadian* fiddler with them who played for Native Americans to “break the ice” of cross-cultural contact. Rafts carrying a variety of products down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and their tributaries often carried fiddlers, and river transport played an important role in the sharing of repertoire among musicians in those regions. Show music, popular music, and tunes to accompany fashionable dances such as waltzes or schottisches were taken to the interior by steamboats. Roustabouts working on riverboats sang at their work and frequented dances and social events along the rivers. Workers on canal barges developed a repertoire of songs, and sailors on the Great Lakes* used some chanteys as well as a repertoire of ballads about their trade.

Ballads and nautical songs were sung by inland traditional singers for generations after any direct contact with the sea, and nautical imagery and metaphor played an important role in nineteenth-century religious music. This practice continued into the twentieth century with bluegrass and gospel music. Popular-music songwriters in the twentieth century have continued to compose material on nautical themes, from the Broadway musical Showboat (1927), to the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” (1963).

Some singers and songwriters of the “folk revival” starting in the 1950s turned their attention to traditional maritime music. Throughout his entire career, rock and bluegrass guitarist and banjo player Jerry Garcia included sea music and other traditional music in his solo and ensemble, electric and acoustic repertoires; his compact disc Shady Grove (1996) includes “Off to Sea Once More,” “Jackaroo,” and “The Handsome Cabin Boy.” In 1969 Crosby, Stills, and Nash recorded “Wooden Ships,” a parable of rival political castaways trying to survive on a desert island, and, in 1982, the popular “Southern Cross,” about the hope and freedom of life on the water. Gordon Bok and Canadians Stan Rogers and Gordon Lightfoot are among the better-known folk maritime songwriters. Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”* (1976), written in the form of a traditional nautical ballad, achieved considerable radio airplay on pop stations in the 1970s and 1980s. Far from a dying art form, both traditional and contemporary sea music has experienced a significant revival in the late twentieth century. [See also SAMUELS, SAMUEL; SHORE LEAVE MUSICALS]

FURTHER READING: Abrahams, Roger. Deep the Water, Shallow the Shore. Austin: American Folklore Society, U of Texas P, 1974; Colcord, Joanna. Roll and Go: Songs of American Sailormen. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1924, Rev. ed., New York: Norton, 1938; Doerflinger, William Main. Shantymen and Shantyboys. New York: Macmillan, 1951; Harlow, Frederick Pease. Chanteying aboard American Ships. Barre, MA: Barre Gazette, 1962; Hugill, Stan. Shanties from the Seven Seas. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961. Repub. Mystic, CT: Mystic Seaport, 1994.

Craig Edwards and Robert Walser