About Sea Shanties

The word "chanty" (or shanty) is probably derived from the French word "chanter" - to sing. Shanties were originally shouted out, with emphasis on a syllable or word as sailors performed their work. Shanties developed separate rhythms for the various chores at sea - for raising the anchor (which was done by marching around the capstan), hauling ropes, etc.

Most songs involved a lead singer and a choral response. The words were called out by a chantyman and the men joined in on the chorus. The words of the chorus usually coincided with a heave, or pull.

Shanties served both as a mental diversion and synchronized teamwork. They also provided an outlet for sailors to express their opinions in a manner which would not cause punishment. They were sung as work songs and not for recreation. It was considered bad luck to sing them ashore.

Ceremonial and forecastle (the crews quarters) songs were those sung by sailors on their time off (of which they didn't have a great deal). These usually told stories of famous battles, romance or of their longing for home. Ceremonial shanties were for times of celebration, such as when the sailor paid off his debt to the ship or when they crossed the equator. Songs sung for recreation or entertainment were called forebitters and were sung in or on the forecastle (or near the forebits) when the men of a watch were off duty. This was during the second dog watch which was between 6 and 8pm – weather conditions etc permitting!

The "golden age" of shanties was in the nineteenth century.

Types of shanties

  • Capstan shanties: The capstan was a mushroom shaped object with holes along the top. Sailors inserted bars into the holes and marched around the capstan to raise the anchor. Capstan shanties had steady rhythms and usually told stories because of the length of time (which could be hours) it took to raise the anchor. Sailors would stamp on the deck on the words. This gave rise to the term, "stamp and go chanties."
  • Halyard shanties: Halyard shanties were sung to the raising and lowering of sails. Sails hung from wooden cross-pieces called yards. With the canvas and wood, sails could weigh between 1,000 and 2,500 pounds. To set sail a member of the crew would climb the rigging to loosen the canvas. On deck the crew would take hold of a line called the halyard (for haul + yard). The crew would rest during the verse and haul during the chorus. Depending on the weight of the sail, crews could pull one (for heavy jobs) to three (for lighter jobs) times per chorus.
  • Short drag shanties: Very difficult tasks meant crews could pull less. Short drag shanties were used for such tasks - such as trimming the sails or raising the masthead.
  • Windlass and pumping shanties: The windlass is also used to raise the anchor. Sailors would pump handles up and down, making the barrel of the windlass rotate to bring the anchor chain up. Pumps were fitting in ships to empty the bilge (the lowest part of the ship) of water. Wooden ships leaked, but not so fast that the crew could not pump the water out. There were several different types of pumps, which accounts for the variation in the timing of pumping shanties.

This information was based on an article on the following website: http://www.contemplator.com/history/epedia.html#shanty