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 (December 15, 1900)

The Flannan Isles Lighthouse protects ships along the Western Isles of Scotland. In 1900, it was staffed by three men: James Ducat, Thomas Marshall, and Donald McArthur. Just one year after it was first lit, the country was captivated by their mysterious disappearance. On December 15, the ships began noting that the light was unlit. When the Northern Lighthouse Board arrived to investigate, they found the premises in good order but no sign of the crew. An official investigation determined the men were swept away by an enormous rogue wave, but for years, there has been rampant speculation about sea serpents, ghosts, foreign spies, new identities, or violent altercations. Later research uncovered that "Marshall was previously fined five shillings when his equipment was washed away during a huge gale. It is likely, in seeking to avoid another fine, that he and Ducat tried to secure their equipment during a storm and were swept away as a result. The fate of McArthur, although required to stay behind to man the lighthouse, can be guessed to be the same."

The word beacon is laden with symbolism, and the sight of a familiar lighthouse was usually accompanied by joy as in En Gammal Brigg. The lonely plight of a lighthouse keeper is captured in Brasswork: The Lighthouse Keeper's Lament.

This Day in History (September 3, 1884)

September 3, 1884 marks the sinking of the John Bigler, an otherwise unremarkable schooner out of Detroit (or possibly Chicago) memorialized in song. The slow-moving timber drogher was sailed, and sometimes pulled, through the Great Lakes canals, averaging some 4 miles an hour. The ship was lost with $3,500 worth of stone in the middle of Lake Superior. A clipping from the Toronto Telegram, 3 Oct 1942, provides more detail about the ship, the times, and the song.

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