Sea shanties and maritime music

For without his chanty the seaman could not have worked the under-manned and underfed, and often sty-fed, vessels in which he went up and down the world; he could not have set sail to favoring breeze or furled it from destroying gale. There is nothing like a song to lift any kind of work along; and a chanty was then – and still is, on the few square-rigged wanderers left on the seas – as good as ten men on a rope's end, capstan-bar, or windlass-brake.

William Brown Meloney IV, The Chanty Man Sings, 1926

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.

This Day in History (May 21, 1844)

Captain "Sandy" Mackenzie of the British barque Saladin was primarily a guano trader between South America and Britain. While lying in Valparaiso in 1844, Mackenzie offered free passage to a stranded British shipmaster George Fielding and his fifteen-year-old son. Once near the equator, the Fieldings organized a mutiny with the aim of seizing some of the 70 tons of copper, 13 bars of silver, and $9000 in gold and silver coins their host was tasked to transport. Captain Mackenzie, his chief mate, and four other seamen were killed by the Fieldings as at least 3 of the 8 remaining crewman joined the plot.

Between the barbarity of the act and George Fielding's scheming to further reduce the remaining crew, the ringleaders claimed to be astounded. They threw the Fieldings overboard but continued toward the Gulf of Saint Lawrence to divide the bounty. Without a skilled navigator, however, the Saladin ran aground near County Harbour, Nova Scotia on May 21, 1844. The suspicious circumstances and mismatched defenses led to charges of piracy and murder in what became the last Canadian piracy trial. Four men were found guilty and sentenced to the gallows over Halifax Harbor, and at least one balladist put the predicament of mutineer Charles Gustavus Anderson to song.

Try a random shanty sampling

The Losing of the Whale
Modern song

In eighteen hundred and forty-six
On March the fourteenth day,
I bought myself a calendar
For we were bound away.

We sailed from Tacky Guano
And followed the seabird’s flight,
For we were hunting whales, me boys,
At least we thought we might.

We sailed for three long days and nights
But saw no whales at all.
The mate went up the mast to look
While our captain went up the wall.

We sailed for four more days and nights
And still we had no luck;
Till a whale come up for air, me boys
And the mate cried, “Thar she suck!”

The whale she lashed her tail, me boys,
One man on deck took a glancing blow;
But not so bad as our captain
For he was wounded down below.

Now the first to throw his harpoon out
Was Valparaiso Luke.
He hit her in the tail, me boys,
But they said that was a fluke.

Now we went in with our blubber hooks
And the whale sunk down below;
We caused her for to vomit, boys,
And the mate cried,”Thar she throw!”

Now we hauled that whale on deck, me boys,
Amid many hearty cries;
But that fish it was so huge, me boys,
That our vessel did capsize.

And our captain with remorse was filled
Likewise with water too;
“I’ll no more hunt the whale,” he cried,
“If that’s the last thing I don’t do!”

“I’ll never more hunt that whale,” he cried,
And what’s more, he was right.
For the heavy seas bore down on him
And carried him from our sight.

And soon likewise we all were drown’d
None lived to tell the tale;
Not one of us survived to tell
Of how we lost that whale.

Flash Gals of the Town
Forecastle song

Now come all you ladies gay, what robs sailors of their pay,
And list' while I sing this tarry tune,
When Jack Tar he comes ashore, with his gold an' silver store,
There's no one can get rid o' it so soon.

Now the first thing he demands is a fiddler to his hand,
A bottle of Nelson's Blood so stout an' warm.
And a pretty gal likewise with two dark an' rollin' eyes,
An' he'll drop his anchor an' never more will roam.

Then the landlady she comes in with her brand new crinoline,
She looks like some bright an' flashin' star,
An' she's ready to wait on him, if his pockets are lined with tin,
An' to chalk his score on the board behind the bar.

Then she calls a pretty maid, right-handed an' soft-laid,
An' up aloft they climb without much bother,
An' she shortens in her sail for a weatherin' of the gale,
An' soon in the tiers they're moored quite close together.

Then he shifted her main tack an' he caught her flat aback,
They rolled from the lee to the weather,
An' he laid her close 'longside, oh, closehauled as she would lie,

'Twas tack an' tack through hell an' stormy weather.

But his money soon was gone, an' his flash gal soon had flown,
She roamed along the Highway for another,
An' the landlady cried, "Pay yer score an' git outside,
Yer cargo's gone an' you've met stormy weather."

Then poor ol' Jack must understand that there's ships a-wantin' hands,
And to the Shadwell Basin he went down,
And he shipped away forlorn on a passage round the Horn,
Goodbye to the boys an' the flash gals of the town.