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Ceremonial shanties were those frequently reserved for times of celebration, such as when the sailor paid off his debt to the ship, when they crossed the equator, or when they left a port homeward bound.
The customs of crews varied from ship to ship, but a few songs reached this designation on a larger scale.
The songs of this category are often associated with specific fishing communities. Some were sung on the docks, some in small vessels, and some by the "herring girls" gutting and packing fish along the English shores.
The work did not require the coordination of raising sails and anchors, but the musical customs associated with fishing may indeed be older than most other sailing song traditions.
After the day's work, when supper had been eaten and mess-kits put away, came the sailor's leisure time. Pipes were lit, a fiddle or accordion was brought about, and singing, dancing, and yarn-spinning commenced. These are generally sentimental ballads or stories of famous men, battles, romance, humor, or longing for home. Popular tunes filtered in from the shore as well.
The forecastle serves as the crews quarters. In British merchant service parlance, these songs were known as "fore-bitters."
A song from this large class of shanties would be used to synchronize hands during tasks that required significant physical exertion. The most clear example is in using a rope to raise a sail, perhaps amidst the rocky waves of an icy storm. The sails of the 1788 warship HMS Royal George, for example, weighed 10 tons and covered over 2 acres!
A small class of songs intended for furling sail, a unified haul among several hands. A recognizable characteristic is the single accentuated final syllable as a signal to haul. Sometimes a second attempt was necessary.
A more traditional approach, though less enjoyable, was to synchronize hands with a chant of "one, two, three", "haul in, haul two, haul be-lay", "un, deux, trois", etc.
Halyard (or Long Drag) shanties were sung to the raising and lowering of sails, or other long, heavy tasks such as catting the anchor. Sails hung from wooden cross-pieces called yards. With the canvas and wood, sails could weigh between 1,000 and 2,500 pounds. To set sail a member of the crew would climb the rigging to loosen the canvas. On deck the crew would take hold of a line called the halyard (for haul + yard). The crew would rest during the verse and haul during the chorus. Depending on the weight of the sail, crews could pull one (for heavy jobs) to three (for lighter jobs) times per chorus. Crew would haul on accentuated beats of the chorus.
Short drag (or short haul) shanties were for tasks requiring quick pulls over a relatively short time, such as when shortening or unfurling sails, or when raising the masthead. The action here was lighter, shorter, or even hand-over-hand, but it was still necessary for the crew to act in cooperation.
"Hand-Over-Hand", "Sweating-Up", and "Stamp-and-Go" Shanties are special-purpose short-haul shanties used for setting jibs, staysails, and smaller square sails.
These fast-paced song, sometimes sung in unison, could also be appropriated for multiple hands passing rope or a marching regiment.
Heaving shanties are used while working the capstan, brake windlass, or ship pumps. The rhythm and structure is suited to specific tasks such as weighing anchor, cutting-in whales, offloading cargo, or pumping ship. Whereas pulling and hauling required great, punctuated force, the tasks suited to these shanties required continuous effort.
The capstan (pronounced caps'n) is an upright, barrel-shaped winch used for heavy lifting. Between 4 and 300 men would push the capstan bars to wind a cable, lifting anchor, cargo, or a vessel. Capstan shanties, with their steady rhythms, were suited for these long, repetitive tasks.
Many capstan shanties use waltz or march time. Their main goal is to alleviate boredom and maintain morale.
Sailors at the pumps moved handles up and down, rotating the barrel of the windlass to raise anchor. Pumps were also used to empty the bilge (the lowest part of the ship) of water. Wooden ships leaked (some more than others), but not so fast that the crew could not pump the water out. Pumping ship was typically a long, monotonous stretch of work unless enlivened by song.
There were several different types of pumps which account for the variation in the timing of these shanties. In earlier days, the pump handles, or brakes, worked up and down; but later wheel pumps had the brakes attached to the wheel rims.
The brake windlass is a horizontal winch, smaller than a capstan, of later invention and especially popular on whaling boats.
The invention of this device led to a family of windlass shanties with a distinctly staccato rhythm, but other existing shanties were adapted to the job as well.
From naval ballads to novelists, national poet laureates to lonely lighthouse keepers, maritime poetry is an enormous field, but chronicling it is outside the scope of this collection. Nevertheless, select poems have found a way into the database.
These songs are markedly newer but they were deemed notable nonetheless. Although the words never left the lips of an old-time sailor, they've found their way into the annals of maritime music.
This category includes modern songs emulating shanties, commercial folk songs, parodies, tributes, etc.
The rise and fall of whaling expeditions in the mid-1800s saw a unique class of songs emerge. The large crews aboard a whaling ship obviated the need for hauling shanties. Windlass songs were used for hauling blubber and other daily chores, and whalers were the originators of many forebitters and ballads. Of all sailing, whaling may be the hardest and most hazardous, and the tone of many whaling songs was set by this fact.