About the origin and use of shanties.

“A good shanty man is worth four hands on the rope”

By: Stephan Kraan
Did you know that you sang your first Dutch shanty song at school? Indeed, sailors were singing the shanty: “Daar was Laatst een meisje loos” when they walked around the capstan. And another shanty you might have sung in the bus on a school trip is : “What shall we do with the drunken sailor”. Easy songs with an attractive refrain that makes it easy to sing along. Nowadays thousands of people, most men, love to sing shanties. Although there is often no sign of any sea in the surroundings, many villages have their own shanty choir to the horror of many a true sailor. A shanty is just a tool to do the hard labour on a ship in the harbour or at sea. When seafaring people sing the shanties just for the fun of it; it would bring on bad luck.

Shanties are working songs sung on board of the big sailing ships in the period from 1820 to 1930. The great seafaring nations were, in order of importance: Great Britain, America, France, Germany, Sweden and Holland. Shanties started because of the increasing competition, the construction of ever larger and faster clippers and the rise of steamships. Less people had to do more work and as well the quality as the working atmosphere on board got better by using shanties.

One of the sailors took up the role of the shanty man. He had a strong voice to sing the songs loud and rhythmical. The crew roared with him the refrains and on the rhythm they pushed, pulled or walked full force. The shanties were sung a cappella i.e. without accompaniment. For every kind of work were special shanties with their own characters and rhythms. The shanty man needed some humour and the ability to improvise because the different jobs on board did not always take the same time and effort. He sometimes had to make up some extra verses. The songs were about women of the dockside, mermaids and other seaman’s dreams. About superstition, great tragedies or heroic adventures.

About odes to sailing or to particular ships. About bad conditions on board; the hard labour, the bad cook or the unreasonable captain. Shanties were a tool just like a knife and cable yarn. Sailors linked these songs to work. It was bad luck to sing shanties ashore or during the few short periods of rest on board.

 Stan Hugill

When the big sailing ships disappeared, also the shanties tend to fade away. Many shanties have gone together with their performers. After the loss of the big sailing ships old American, French, Swedish and German seamen wrote down their songs in song books. An example is the book Chansons de Bord by the French officer Armand Hayet (1927).
stan2The most important researcher and collector of shanties was Stan Hugill (1906 – 1992). He was the last known shanty man who actually worked on the clippers. He collected and published hundreds of songs during his life as a singer and sailor. He wrote the “bible” for shanty singers: Shanties From The Seven Seas (1961). Till his death he sang the shanties in his inimitable and authentic way at maritime events all over the world. He also gave lectures about life aboard the sailing ships and the way in which the songs were used. Without his research and efforts the world of maritime music would have been very different.

Other researchers are the French “Le Chass-Marreé” and the American “Mystic Seaport Museum”. Le Chasse- Marreé is an organisation which focuses  on  research, preservation and return of French traditional  seafaring. Research of origin and use of shanties and stimulating the singing of these songs in a traditional way, are the main activities of Le Chass-Marreé. Therefore  it edits magazines and books and it organises courses and festivals. In America the Mystic Seaport Museum  does the same job. On the whaler the Charles W. Morgan they show how sailors used the songs during their work. Apart from these organisations there are a few folk musicians who search for new shanties in the archives, and with success!

Not many of the Dutch shanties have come down to us. They have been found in old books or have been written down by collectors of old traditional songs. Ate Doorenbosch is such a researcher. There are several reasons for the small number of Dutch shanties. One cause is the lack of systematic research   during the 19th and 20th century. There has never been  a Dutch Stan Hugill or Armand Hayet .  Probably it has something to do with our Calvinistic  nature that could not cope with the often obscene text.  But that is not the only reason; there simply were not many Dutch shanties. The Netherlands lost their position as a leading seafaring nation in the beginning of the 19th century because of the Napoleonic wars.  There were few ships and the ships that were available were idle in the ports. This is the reason most of the Dutch songs and traditions disappeared. After the French domination, the Netherlands built up their fleet again.

However,  these ships often sailed with a foreign crew. They mostly sang English, German or French shanties or a mishmash of languages,  pidgin. These foreign “tools” worked quite well and that was why new Dutch songs were not necessary.


IMG 7595Shanties started getting popular in the beginning of the industrial revolution, between 1830 and 1860 and that went on till 1930. That was the age of the clippers. The potbellied hulls of the vessels that sailed to the Far East made way for the faster and more slender built merchant vessels. In 1818 the legendary Black Ball Line started a bi-monthly service with these clippers between New York and Liverpool. From that time on the windjammers ruled the seven seas. Big ships with relatively small crews. The three, four or five masters were equipped with yards and square sails. These ships were sometimes more than 100 meters long and carried 6000 square meters of sails. The sails were fixed to horizontal spars or hollow metal tubes, called yard. By moving the yard fore and aft, i.e. brace, the sails could be adjusted to the wind.
Most of the sails had to be hoisted with the fall. The men formed a row on deck and pulled the sail up. Other sails were taken down. Most of the work with ropes or high up in the masts was handi work.

There were not many tools on board. Examples of a few tools are the capstan and the pumps. The capstan was used to weigh the anchor or to warp the ship in the port or in the lock. The pumps on board were used to keep the always leaky ships dry. When the steamers arrived the omnipotence of the clippers was beginning to fade. Around 1930 the sailing cargo ships were done and with it the shanty as a working song. By the way, shanties were not used on all sailing ships . In the navy singing was out of the question.

The shanties
The work on board of the sailing ships went faster and more efficient when a shanty man was on board. He was usually just one of the sailors, who was in charge of the singing. He did not pull any ropes, but he stood at the pulley to handle the rope. He did not walk around the capstan but he was on top of it. The shanty man had an enormous repertoire of shanties. He learned them on the way, from his father and/or other singers.

The word “shanty” was used for the first time in a writing from 1850. There are more theories about the origin of the word. It possibly comes  from the French word “chantez”(to sing). The importance of a shanty man is obvious in the saying : “A good shanty man is worth four hands on the rope”.

Shanties were common practice on the ships. The songs came from all over the world. Some of them were created on board. But mostly the texts and melodies of existing songs were used. For instance soldiers’ songs from the American civil war. The texts were changed and sometimes  the melodies were altered. After the abolition of slavery the black people from the plantations brought their working songs and negro spirituals aboard the ships and adjusted them to the labour. So every song has got its own history.

The crews of the ships were a mixture of sailors from different countries and continents. That is why many songs exist in different languages with an endless variety in melody or text. Some songs were used for several jobs, for instance by singing them  faster or slower or in another rhythm.  By and large there are 2 types of shanties. Songs to work the capstan and the pumps and songs to hoist the sails. In short: heave and haul.

The capstan
shanty1There are a lot of shanties for working with the capstan. Working with the capstan involved long working hours and monotony. It was not one single energetic push, but the sailors walked around the capstan, bent and pushing against the bars of the capstan. With the capstan more power could be used on the ropes, cables or chains; to warp the ship in the harbour or weigh the anchor. Weighing the anchor could take 24 hours. Examples of Dutch capstan songs are: “Rendowee and De IJzeren Man”.

To the pumps
Pumps were tools to pump the water out of the ship. Especially when in high seas lots of water washed into the hold or when the ships were old and not well maintained. It was hard labour. For days on end the sailors moved the pumps up and down in an endless cadence. Unfortunately there are hardly any Dutch pump songs left. “Leave her Johnny leave her” is a well-known English example.

On the ropes
A big three- or four master has got lots of sails for different purposes. They have several sizes and are differently hoisted or braced. Because of all these differences the shanty man had different songs for all sorts of work with every type of sail.

Sometimes the sailors had to work the ropes on and on; sometimes a few drags were enough. The most basic shanty is the yell, a cry that followed after short introduction. “One, two , three and ….go!” The sailors used their creativity and made up all kinds of words and phrases based on this yell. Then they started singing these yells. In songs for short and light work like hoisting a small sail, bracing or any job that needs a last short haul, you can still hear the original yell. This shanty is called the “sing-out”.

shanty3The structure of the shanties is its most important feature. The shanty man sings one line and then the rest of the workers respond in chorus. Then again the soloist sings a line and the crew the second chorus. This is repeated till the work is done. The sailor at the end of the rope gives a shout and the song stops. For instance a shanty to hoist a small sail was called  “hand-over-hand-song”. It helped to get the work done quickly. While hoisting the great sails sailors sang the so-called “halyard shanties”. The halyard, or the fall, is the rope to hoist the sail. “Katrijntje Boelijntje“ is one of the few Dutch hauling songs. ”Blow The Man Down” is a famous example of an English halyard song.

Odd jobs
Also for other kinds of labour on board there were songs. The Dutch song: “Hejo” comes from the German song: “Heho, Hurra Frisch Nah“. It was used to bring in the fishing nets. Also when unloading a ship songs were used. The only songs known to take on ballast are from Dutch origin. “West Zuid West Van Ameland" is one of them. After the ship was unloaded, at low tide baskets with sand from the Dutch Wadden were emptied in the hold and used for ballast.

The rediscovery of the shanty
In the late fifties Harry Bellafonte made the shanties world famous with songs like “Round The Bay Of Mexico” and the ”Banana Boat” song. Stan Hugill’s book “Shanties From The Seven Seas” (1961) was a great source of inspiration for many folk groups in the sixties and seventies. When in the eighties the big sailing events with Windjammers were more and more popular, the popularity of shanties rose as well. Well-known artists on international festivals are i.e. Johnny Collins, Jim Mageean, Shanty Jack and Stormalong John from Great Britain; Cabestan, Les Souilles de Fond de Calles and Djiboudjep from France; Forebitter, Nextradition and Bob Walser from America: Liereliet and Kat yn’t Seil from Holland.
The archives with shanties are almost exhausted. That is why musicians more and more write new shanties based on the structure of the old songs and with texts, which are historically sound. Nanne Kalma from the Netherlands is in this regard unsurpassed. This is how the tradition of working songs can live on although seafaring life has changed for ever.