Sea shanties and maritime music

I remembered that sailors still sing in chorus while they work, and even sing different songs according to what part of their work they are doing. And a little while afterwards, when my sea journey was over, the sight of men working in the English fields reminded me again that there are still songs for harvest and for many agricultural routines. And I suddenly wondered why if this were so it should be quite unknown, for any modern trade to have a ritual poetry... And at the end of my reflections I had really got no further than the sub-conscious feeling of my friend the bank-clerk—that there is something spiritually suffocating about our life; not about our laws merely, but about our life. Bank-clerks are without songs, not because they are poor, but because they are sad. Sailors are much poorer.

G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles, 1909

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.

Try a random shanty sampling

Ye Parliament of England
Forecastle song

Ye Parliament of England,
ye Lord and Commons too,
Consider well what you're about,
what you're about to do.
For you're to war with Yankees,
and I'm sure you'll rue the day
You roused the Sons of Liberty
in North America!

You first confined our commerce,
And said our ships shan't trade,
You next impressed our seamen,
And used them as your slaves;
You then insulted Rodgers,
While ploughing o'er the main,
And had we not declared war,
You'd have done it o'er again.

You tho’t our frigates were but few,
And Yankees could not fight,
Until brave Hull your Guerrière took,
And banished her from your sight.
The Wasp then took your Frolic,
We'll nothing say to that,
The Poictiers being of the line
Of course she took her back.

The next, your Macedonian,
No finer ship could swim,
Decatur took her gilt work off,
And then he sent her in.
The Java, by a Yankee ship
Was sunk you all must know;
The Peacock fine, in all her plume,
By Lawrence down did go.

Then, next you sent your Boxer,
To box us all about,
But we had an Enterprising brig
That boxed your Boxer out;
She boxed her up to Portland,
And moored her off the town,
To show the sons of liberty
The Boxer of renown.

The next upon Lake Erie,
Where Perry had some fun,
You own he beat your naval force,
And caused them for to run;
This was to you & sore defeat,
The like ne'er known before
Your British squadron beat complete
Some took, some run ashore.

There's Rodgers, in the President,
Will burn, sink, and destroy;
The Congress, on the Brazil coast,
Your commerce will annoy;
The Essez, in the South Seas,
Will put out all your lights,
The flag she waves at her mast-head-
"Free Trade and Sailors' Rights."