History of shanties

Sailors’ songs and Shanties

A shanty is a work song and therefore the rhythm is extremely important. They were sung on board the great sailing ships (windjammers) during those jobs where a large group of sailors had to coordinate their activities, like raising the anchor, setting the sails or the monotonous work at the pumps. Besides coordinating the work rhythm the shanty had also a social function: the sailors could voice their opinion about the situations on board, like the quality of the food or the meanness  of the officers.

Often they are four-line verses with a short solo of the shantyman and the answer of the workers. Shanties stem from the period of 1820-1920 and may have quite different origins (not only folksongs from the British Isles or other European countries but also slave songs from the Southern Unied States or the West Indies). Because in those times many seaman came from Ireland there is a noticeale influence from Irish folksongs. Most shanties are sung in English, sometimes in French, German or Dutch.

So-called sailors’ songs were not sung at work. In the rare free time they had the sailors sat on deck and sung in these “fore-bitters” the hard life on board or the emotional ties with the mainland, for instance melancholic songs about saying farewell. These songs were often accompanied by musical instruments like the banjo or the accordion.

Many Thanks to Jan Verlinden from Zingerij Dwarsgetuigd