Let’s haul on some sea chanteys

As I’ve previously noted, the work songs went into the woods in the winter, carried by sailors who came ashore for the season. But few songs in return migrated from the forests to the sea.

Women’s names could be a clue to the, uh, moral integrity of many messages. “Sally” or “Nancy,” for instance, some more sterling than others.

Other work songs include chain-gang ditties or even the racist, “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” though it might fit what’s become of the minimum-wage American workplace.

As for spellings, I’m sticking with “chantey,” based on a scholarly friend’s insistence the notes having a chanter setting the pace. “Shanty” and “chanty,” though, are more common.

Here are some related facts.

  1. This folk music genre flourished aboard larger merchant vessels of the 19th century as a means of setting a rhythm to optimize joint labor involved in either a pulling or pushing motion, such as lifting anchor or setting sail, tasks that required working together for a long time. Think of circling a capstan. Think “Heave!” Or “Haul!”
  2. That’s why many of them are about whaling.
  3. The tradition soared in the period between the War of 1812 and the Civil War and died out with the arrival of steam-powered ships.
  4. Its roots, though, go way back through earlier work songs around the world, including stevedores loading and unloading ships.
  5. Some of the chanteys originated with African-Americans performing “cotton-screwing” on shore, using a large screw-jack to compress and bale cotton for shipment from Southern ports. Some of the incomprehensible words in the songs are attributed to this.
  6. Essentially, it’s a call-and-response form between the solo chantey man and the work crew.
  7. Sometimes they were accompanied by a bosun’s pipe, fife, drum, or fiddle.
  8. They were sung by pirates, too.
  9. About 200 were set down on paper, but thousands more were likely lost.
  10. Some may have been used when relaxing in the evening.


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