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Things That Have Interested Me

Songs of the Sea

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
21 April 2007

I noticed the other day that sea shanties have been said to show an African influence, that they are part of the musical legacy of the slave trade. The thought was both surprising and convincing. I have always associated sea shanties with the folk-song revival and with a kind of English nationalism and naval nostalgia - although a moment's thought tells one that many of them are less to do with England than with America.

We never hear shanties sung as they were supposed to be sung, since they are work songs devised to accompany and facilitate specific tasks on board the sailing ships: there were capstan shanties, pumping shanties, windlass shanties and so on. Even in the great days of sail, we are told, they were only sung when these tasks were being performed.

When we hear sea shanties today, they are almost certainly bowdlerised, most likely arranged to suit a choir and therefore quite possibly harmonised in an attempt to elevate their musical quality. What comes across as characteristic of a sea shanty, a haunting melody as in, for instance, "Blow the Man Down", must surely bear only a distant resemblance to the original.

To make a song into a shanty, a work song, involved distributing its lines as verses and responses, the lines alternating between the shanty-man and the rest of the crew, and the accents perhaps corresponding to the physical activity involved - pulling a rope, say, or raising a sail. This arrangement is very like much African music and the kind of singing associated with camp meetings or religious revivals that began in America in the early 19th century.

However, it cannot be the case that this kind of work song derives from the slave trade. For it is surely something ancient and universal, to mark the effort of communal work by singing. The mariners on a Venetian galley in the 15th century sang, and there was "a concert between one who sings out orders and the labourers who sing in response". The earliest work giving actual shanty verses, according to Stan Hugill, is The Complaynt of Scotland (1549). It is hard to know what to make of an example of a bowline shanty from this work:

Hou, hou, pulpela, pulpela,
Boulena, boulena,
Darta, darta,
Hard out strif.

Hugill, who wrote several books on the subject, collected a single remaining example of an Anglo-Hindi shanty in Trinidad, deriving from the trade of indentured labour between Calcutta and the West Indies:

Ke, ke, ke, ke, Ekidumah!

Somerset a-killa coolie man, Ekidumah!
Somerset a-killa wire fall, Ekidumah!
Somerset a-killa bosun's mate, Ekidumah!

And he tells us that there were many songs of African-American and Latin mixture, around southern Mexico and British Honduras:

A de hala hombre poquito mas,
Down below for rolling go!


Chyrra me Yankee, chyrra me rao,
What's de matta de loggin' no go?

Hugill points out that there are Irish/Negro shanties that have Irish airs and what he calls Negro words, although he does not, in the book I am reading (Shanties and Sailors' Songs), give the text of either. You can understand why:

I nebber see de like since I been born,
When a big buck nigger wid his sea boots on
Says "Johnny come down to Hilo,
Poor old man!"


Oh! Wake her, Oh! Shake her,
Oh! Wake dat girl wid de blue dress on!
When Johnny comes down to Hilo,
Poor old man!

And in another version of this windlass and capstan shanty, the "big buck nigger" turns into an "Arkansas farmer".

This mixing of Irish and black idiom, Spanish, Hindi and so on, is to be expected as an outcome from multiracial crews. In the early 19th century, there was a system of "chequerboard watches" on the sugar-droghers out of Liverpool, Glasgow and Bristol. All ships had two watches, port and starboard, and if the port was made up of whites, the starboard would consist of black seamen. "And I must say," wrote Hugill in 1969, "with modern colour problems in mind, they got on very well together indeed."

Carl Sandburg produced a magnificent folk anthology in 1927, The American Songbag, which contains, among many items, what he called "one of the few known work songs of the slave days of the American Negro". This is it:

Heave away, heave away!
I'd rather court a yellow gal
Than work for Henry Clay,
Heave away, heave away!
Yellow gal, I want to go.
I'd rather court a yellow gal
Than work for Henry Clay!
Heave away! Yellow gal, I want to go!

The shanties were often offensive in their day, and the singing of them was forbidden by the more pious or upright ship masters. And they were bowdlerised in their day as well, when the ship's passengers got in the habit of gathering around the men to listen to their songs.

But the great thing to understand is the way they relate to work: "Now this song," says a singer recorded in 1939, "it commences ... The solo is sung by the shantyman sitting on the capstan head ... The shantyman sits there and does nothing, while the crew, walking around the capstan, are singing." The interviewer asks the singer where the pull comes. The singer doesn't understand. "And that's where they pull?" repeats the interviewer. "There's no pull in a capstan shanty!" says the singer: "They're walking around the capstan with the bars." In other words, they are pushing continuously, and that fact will be somehow reflected in the song.

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