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 (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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A Ballad of John Silver

We were schooner-rigged and rakish, with a long and lissome hull,
And we flew the pretty colours of the cross-bones and the skull;
We'd a big black Jolly Roger flapping grimly at the fore,
And we sailed the Spanish Water in the happy days of yore.

We'd a long brass gun amidships, like a well-conducted ship,
We had each a brace of pistols and a cutlass at the hip;
It's a point which tells against us, and a fact to be deplored,
But we chased the goodly merchant-men and laid their ships aboard.

Then the dead men fouled the scuppers and the wounded filled the chains,
And the paint-work all was spatter-dashed with other people's brains,
She was boarded, she was looted, she was scuttled till she sank,
And the pale survivors left us by the medium of the plank.

O! then it was (while standing by the taffrail on the poop)
We could hear the drowning folk lament the absent chicken-coop;
Then, having washed the blood away, we'd little else to do
Than to dance a quiet hornpipe as the old salts taught us to.

O! the fiddle on the fo'c's'le, and the slapping naked soles,
And the genial "Down the middle, Jake, and curtsey when she rolls!"
With the silver seas around us and the pale moon overhead,
And the look-out not a-looking and his pipe-bowl glowing red.

Ah! the pig-tailed, quidding pirates and the pretty pranks we played,
All have since been put a stop-to by the naughty Board of Trade;
The schooners and the merry crews are laid away to rest,
A little south the sunset in the Islands of the Blest.