Sea shanties and maritime music

The songs of the sea have a long legacy of scholarship, musicianship, and public performance. From the work songs of deep-water sailors and fishermen, to the ballads taken into pubs and forecastles, these songs have been used to coordinate effort, remember shore life, and sometimes just pass the time.

The songs themselves have been passed from ship to ship, printed in newspapers and books, shared at festivals, learned from video games, and remixed on social media. Hundreds of sea music-specific albums have been recorded, and maritime music comprises a distinct genre.

This Day in History (July 18, 1901)

Howard Blackburn is a Gloucester, Massachusetts legend. He left life as a successful tavern-keeper to row across the Atlantic in a single-person dory called the Great Republic. On July 18, 1901, the 25-foot sloop made port in Lisbon, Portgul, after just 39 days at sea. It was Blackburn's second solo trans-Atlantic voyage, and his time set a record that wouldhold for many years.

What makes Blackburn's voyage all-the-more remarkable is that he had lost nearly all of his fingers and toes to frostbite in 1883. While fishing for halibut, he and his crewmate were separated from their ship. While rowing and bailing, his crewmate lost hope and succumbed to the winter storm, but Blackburn, noting the inevitable, froze his hands to the oars and rowed for five days. He was nursed back to health but the results of the journey have been documented in gruesome detail. Nevertheless, shore life left Blackburn with a yearning for adventure, and strenuous solo voyages were his answer. His name lives on in Gloucester, where his tavern building still stands, and in the ballad The Saga of Howard Blackburn.

This Day in History (June 1, 1813)

Today marks the Battle of Boston Harbor, fought during the War of 1812. The USS Chesapeake was captured by the Royal Navy frigate HMS Shannon on June 1, 1813. Captain of the Shannon Philip Broke wrote to challenge the American frigate to leave the harbor for ship-to-ship combat: "As the Chesapeake appears now ready for sea, I request you will do me the favour to meet the Shannon with her, ship to ship, to try the fortune of our respective flags... Favour me with a speedy reply. We are short of provisions and water, and cannot stay long
here."

Captain Lawrence of the Chesapeake never received the challenge but instead set out to meet the British frigate on the first day of favorable weather. The ships were evenly matched but Lawrence's crew proved ill-prepared. His ship was quickly disabled and boarded, and 71 men died in the ten minutes of ensuing arm-to-arm combat. The Chesapeake was taken as a prize in what became the first major naval victory for the British in the War of 1812. The British memorialized the event in The Shannon and the Chesapeake which parodies the American Revolutionary success sung in The Constitution and Guerrière.

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