Thursday, May 19, 2011

Tools of the Trade: Sea Songs

Almost everyone has some familiarity with sea chanteys (or shanties, or chanties). They are those handsome melodies sung by deep throated sailors in remembrance of home, hard work, and battles won. Though the songs may be somewhat familiar, the general knowledge of what a chantey actually is tends to be surprisingly incorrect. From “Yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum” to “Sixteen men on a dead man’s chest”, there’s no room among the fiction to swing the historical cat.

Frankly, a chantey is a musical way of keeping time while working on a repetitive task. Since there are plenty of those at sea, music – which lifts the spirit and encourages camaraderie – is a fabulous grease to oil the machine. But before we go further, let’s get the English pronunciation right. It’s not a hard “ch” sound, as in chat, but a soft one, as in shanty with which chantey also rhymes. This foible is thought to come from the origin of the word which was the French chanter, to sing. Though shanty in and of itself is now thought acceptable, I prefer the older spelling.

Chanteys boil down to two categories: those that accompany a task that has pauses in its rhythm (as in heaving on a line) and those that go with work requiring a smooth, continuous effort (like working the capstan). Within these two segments of chanteys there are various sub-categories such as:

Halyard chanteys, used for tasks with pauses. These were for work that was expected to last some time and that men would truly need to put their backs into.

Sheet chanteys, wherein the task at hand – again, usually hauling – could be done quickly but only if every man applied his full strength.

Capstan chanteys were more like songs any lubber would be familiar with and allowed the men to not only sing while they set to a task, but also to tell a story.

Walkaway chanteys were used as a device to allow men to keep time while they literally walked up and down the deck heaving a long line. These were also known as stamp and go chanteys as the stomping of bare feet on the deck helped keep the rhythm of both the song and the work.

Pumping chanteys had an obvious purpose: to keep the rhythm of the pumps as water was expelled from the bilge and/or hold. Men might sing these types of songs during routine pumping to maintain the seaworthiness of the ship, but when leakage became dangerous a stern quiet often prevailed at the pumps.

Almost all ships would have had a self-designated chanteyman who led the songs and sang out the lines before the chorus. Capable chanteymen were good for morale and frequently received a small increase in prize share once they had proven themselves.

Aside from proper chanteys, men also sang together when not at work. This kind of musical relaxation was referred to as fo’csle (forecastle) singing or foc’sle songs and would often be accompanied by fiddle or guitar depending on the talents of the men aboard. The Royal Navy banned chanteying in the late 18th century, believing that it would hinder the men’s ability to hear and obey commands. Royal Navy ships continued to carry musicians, however, and foc’sle singing was encouraged to lift moral (and work off the grog ration). A fine example of a British foc’sle song is “Spanish Ladies”, which anyone who has seen the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World will doubtless recall.

Buccaneers, pirates and privateers brought familiar songs (mostly from merchant service) onto their ships and no doubt made up a few of their own as well. These, are unfortunately lost to us for the most part. I hold fond the memories of John Randolph Grymes who, while travelling to Mexico aboard a sloop captained by Dominique Youx, wrote of the largely Haitian crew singing “… Creole chants in handsome, low tones.” Even more so the passenger aboard Renato Beluche’s Mizelle who recalled the captain himself singing Italian songs on deck after supper.

With the release of Disney’s latest pirate fantasy tomorrow will doubtless come the humming of Jack Sparrow’s favorite chantey about men on chests and bottles of rum. In fact Sparrow, were he to live in the era that his clothes – if no his makeup – suggest, would know nothing of the song at all. It is an entirely fictional chantey that did not appear until 1883, penned by Robert Lewis Stevenson for his far superior pirate fantasy Treasure Island.

If you have an interest in historical chanteys sung with an ear for their original sound, here is a link to some videos featuring Triple P’s resident chanteymen, The Corsairs. Enjoy!

Header: Saturday Night at Sea by George Cruikshank c 1840


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Wow, who knew there were so many different types of sea chanteys? Plus, ya gotta love the Corsairs:

"Put your shoulder next to mine and pump away. Pump away!"

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I agree. And there's an excellent example of a "pumping chantey" right there.

Charles L. Wallace said...

Shandy - an excellent combination of one part beer (pilsener) to one part lemonade. Refresco!

A modern example of a walkabout chantey is the Jodie, sung/chanted while marching. Tells a tale and keeps the time to march by.

Never combine the twain ;-)

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Charles and thankee for the added info! We're chanteying right now at chez Pauline; it's Saturday, oui?

Munin said...

My favourite shanty is definitely Spanish Ladies, which I first heard while watching Speilberg's Jaws as a kid (Robert Shaw was one of my childhood heroes). It wasn't until much later that I begun to realise the song had a history beyond the film. I've lost count of the number of different versions I've heard, and the song has since become a wonderful example, for me, of how the sea brought people of different nationalities together in a cultural mish-mash - it's fun to hear Chesapeake Bay mentioned in one version and the English Channel in another.

I also have to mention The Bold Fisherman, from The African Queen. I stumbled upon a .mp3 of Bogey singing it with his wife, Bacall, on an old Bing Crosby show. Great fun.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Munin! Very well articulated, my friend. Music and the sea will always encourage us to come together regardless of where we came from.

And Bogey and I share a birthday, so he's always been one of my favorites.