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 (January 8, 1806)

The death of Lord Nelson was a national tragedy like no other for England. "From Greenwich to Whitehall Stairs, on the 8th of January, 1806, in one of the greatest Aquatic Processions that ever was beheld on the River Thames" drifted the royal shallop (barge). The event is referenced in the modern lament, Carrying Nelson Home. Nelson is mentioned in nearly a dozen other songs.

This Day in History (December 27, 1866)

The Ellen Munn was a Newfoundland schooner lost in a December storm. According to History of King's Cove, the ship was to be repaired over the winter of 1866. They set sail on Christmas day amid inclement weather and promptly set to wait it out. Two days later, the hull was breached by ice. The crew of five men worked frantically in waist-deep water to save the ship but she succumbed to the icy vortex. The wreck happened near land and all survived, but the loss of vital supplies was worrying. Twenty-three men, women, and children abandoned the ship and were taken into the local log huts by several families where they were sheltered until spring. Jimmy Flynn, the skipper, recounted the tale in The Wreck of the Ellen Munn with cautionary conclusion: "And when a sea voyage you begin, don't sail on Christmas Day". His son, M. T. Flynn, was on the Ellen Munn at age 14 and never forgot the generosity and communal spirit of that Christmas season.

Try a random shanty sampling

Brave Admiral Benbow
Forecastle song

Oh, we sailed to Virginia and thence to Fayall
Where we watered our shipping and then weighed all.
Then in view on the seas, boys, seven sails we did espy;
Oh, we mannéd our capstan and weighed speedily

The first we come up with was a brigantine sloop
And we asked if the others were as big as they looked.
Then turning to windward as near as we could lie
We found there was ten men-o'-war a-cruising thereby.

Oh, we drew up our squadron in a very nice line
And boldly we fought them for full four hours time;
Then the day being spent, boys, and the night coming on
We left them alone till the very next morn.

The very next morning the engagement proved hot
And brave Admiral Benbow received a chain shot.
And when he was wounded to his men he did say:
“Take me up in your arms, boys, and carry me away!”

Oh, the guns they did rattle and the bullets did fly,
But Admiral Benbow for help would not cry:
“Take me down to the cockpit, there is ease for my smarts,
If my merry men see me, it would sure break their hearts.”

And there Captain Kirkby proved a coward at last
And with Wade played at bo-peep behind the main-mast
And there they did stand, boys, and shiver and shake
For fear that those French dogs their lives they should take.

The very next morning at the break of the day
They hoisted their tops'ls and so bore away;
We bore up for Port Royal, where the people flocked much
To see Admiral Benbow carried to Kingston Church.

Come all you brave fellows, wherever you be,
And drink to the health of our King and our Queen.
And another good health to the girls that we know,
And a third in remembrance of brave Admiral Benbow.

Oh, yes, drink up a health, boys, to the girls we do know
And a third for remembrance of brave Admiral Benbow.