sea shanties


sea shanties
   Sea shanties, a sub-genre of folk *song, were songs sung on board sailing ships to assist with the hard manual work involved by providing rhythmic co-ordination among the team of workers and also enlivening their toil. The basic pattern of a shanty was for a leader (shantyman) to sing some lines, while the others joined in the chorus or refrain. The relative proportion of call and response, the length of lines, and the rhythm would vary according to the type of work being undertaken, which Hugill divides into two main categories: heaving songs for continuous tasks (capstan, windlass, or pumping work), and hauling songs for intermittent tasks (mainly sail-work). A good shanty could prove highly effective in improving the efficiency of a team of sailors, and a good shantyman was in constant demand. Unlike other types of English folk-song, shanties are characterized by being mainly improvised, and a narrative or coherent text was hardly thought necessary. A shantyman could insert 'verses' in any order, could make them up, or retrieve them from memory, and it was only the chorus, in which the others would join, which needed to be in set form, and even here it was only the rhythm that really mattered. Many shanties were adapted from popular songs of the day, and they were also likely to be bawdy, or even obscene, with nearly all authorities who write from personal experience explaining that the published versions are necessarily pale reflections of the real thing.
   There is still no agreement on the derivation of the word 'shanty' (usually spelt 'chanty' in earlier works), which only appears from the mid-19th century, although sailors' work songs certainly existed before that time. Hugill (1961: 20-3) summarizes the main theories, which include: from the West Indian huts, called 'shanties' which could be moved by concerted effort of the community, accompanied by hauling songs; drinking dens of the Gulf ports, called 'shanties'; from the French chanter, 'to sing', or from the English word 'chant'. None of these is wholly convincing, but Hugill himself inclined towards the first. The earliest clear reference to a sea shanty is found in a manuscript of about 1400, quoted by J. O. *Halliwell (The Early Naval Ballads of England (1841)) which includes the lines: 'Y-how! Taylia! The remenaunte cryen, And pull with all theyr myght'.
   ■ Stan Hugill, Shanties from the Seven Seas (1961); Stan Hugill, Shanties and Sailors' Songs (1969); W. B. Whall, Sea Songs and Shanties (1910).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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