The 10 Manliest Sea Shanties

by Brett & Kate McKay on September 23, 2008 · 41 comments

in Diversions, Travel & Leisure

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Art of Manliness Forum regular, Karmazon. Make sure to check out his posts in the forum. He always provides good fodder for discussion.

I soon got used to this singing, for the sailors never touched a rope without it . . . Some sea captains, before shipping a man, always ask him whether he can sing out at a rope.

–Herman Melville, Redburn

It’s the 19th century. You’re a young man seeking adventure and a test of your manhood. You decide to sign up on a ship to see exotic foreign lands. You take the trip to the coast. You find a big coastal town and you walk through the docks admiring the ships. Finally, you spot one that you like. You walk on deck and a tall man dressed in black coat confronts you. It’s the captain.

“What do you want lad?”

“I want to sign on board sir,” you say.

He looks you up and down, and says “Aye. But first I need to give you a test.”

You’re not worried. You were expecting this and, in fact, hoping for it. You want to show the captain what you can do. After all, you were always the strongest out of all your friends. You could climb up any rock or tree since you learned how to walk. And you also knew a bit about navigation from your grandfather. You were eager to show what a great addition to the crew you’d make.

“How well can you sing?” the captain asks.

Wooden Ships and Iron Men

 

Sea Shanties were work songs sung on ships during the age of sail. They were used to keep rhythm during work and make it more pleasant. Because these songs were used to accomplish a goal, rather then for pure entertainment, the lyrics and melody were not very sophisticated. Still, the songs were usually meaningful and told of a sailor’s life, which included backbreaking labor, abuse from captain and crew, alcohol, and longing for girls and dry land.

A typical shanty had a call-and-response format. One sailor(a shantyman) would call out a verse, to which the rest of the sailors would respond in unison. The work would occur usually on the last syllable of the response or some other cue. An example can be found in the movie Moby Dick:

Shantyman: Our boots and clothes are all in pawn

Sailors: Go(pull) down ye blood red roses, go(pull) down.

Shanties were divided into several categories, named after the work they were used for. There were long haul shanties and short haul shanties for long and short rope pulling. There were windlass shanties for pumping out water(all wooden ships leaked to some extent and water would have to be pumped out regularly), and capstan shanties for raising and lowering the anchor.

There was also a fifth kind of sailor song, which wasn’t really considered a true shanty because it was not used for work. Foc’sle, forecastle or forebitters were songs sung after the work was over. They were named after the sailor’s living quarters, where they would gather around to drink and sing wild ballads. For the purpose of the article I’m including a few of them as shanties.

The categories weren’t set in stone and sailors would often borrow songs and change the melody and rhythm to suit their work. It seems the only rules regarding sea shanties were that the songs talking about  life at sea were sung on the outward part of the journey, and songs talking about coming home and dry land were sung while the ship was homeward bound.

Today, not many people know about the existence of sea shanties. They are usually sung at sea festivals and pirate shows. You can sometimes hear them in movies about the sea, such as Master and Commander and Moby Dick. But the true tradition of shanties ended with the age of sail.

The 10 Manliest Sea Shanties

1. Blow the Man Down


Read the lyrics

A very popular halyard shanty among modern shantymen. The Spongebob Squarepants theme is a variation of this tune. The version sung on ships usually told about a policeman accusing a sailor of being a black baller and the insulted sailor knocking the policeman down and ending up in jail. The modern version usually tells a story about a sailor meeting a pretty young damsel. The title and chorus refer to the abuse sailors endured on the ships of the Black Ball line.

2. Roll the Old Chariot

Read the lyrics

A capstan shanty of African-American origin. The song told about the indulgences sailors dreamed of partaking once they came on shore. It was very easy to add lyrics to it, and so individual sailors would list things they loved most that “wouldn’t do them any harm.”The line, “A drop of Nelson’s blood wouldn’t do us any harm,” refers to Horatio Nelson whose body was put in a casket of brandy following his death at  the battle of Trafalgar.

3. The Coasts of High Barbary

Read the lyrics

This one was a forecastle song. Originally an English song, it was later rewritten by American sailors to tell about a victorious battle with pirates disguised as another ship. The pirates pleaded for mercy but the sailors gave them no quarter.

4. Spanish Ladies

Read the lyrics

This is the song that you can hear in Master and Commander and Jaws. It was a capstan shanty sung on homeward bound journeys. The lines “we’ll rant and we’ll roar like true British sailors, we’ll rant and we’ll roar along the salt seas,” might as well have been a battle cry. The verse “we’ll drink and be jolly and drown melancholy,” perfectly describes the sailor’s recipe for a bad mood.

5. The Bonny Ship The Diamond

Read the lyrics

This was a forecastle song telling a true story about whaling ship The Diamond which was lost at sea in 1819. Whaling in the age of sail was perhaps the most dangerous job a man could do. Sailors were required to kill the biggest creature on earth from a rowboat. The frost and winds and hard work alone were enough to make sure that only the toughest men signed up for the job.

6. Rolling Down to Old Maui

Read the lyrics

Another whaling forecastle song. This one featured a sweet melody which reflected the melancholy of tired sailors. It told about coming home from a whaling trip and describes leaving behind the hardships of hunting for whales.

7. Blood Red Roses

Read the lyrics

A halyard shanty about going around Cape Horn to whale. Rounding Cape Horn was one of the toughest tasks in the age of sail because of the strong and unfavorable winds in the area.

There is some speculation as to what “blood red roses” is referring to. Some people say it’s a name for the Royal British marines who wore a red uniform. Others say it’s referring to whale’s blood on the surface of the water.

8. Fiddler’s Green

Read the lyrics

A forecastle ballad. Fiddler’s Green is sailors’ and fishermen’s version of heaven. A place where there is no work, where you have a mug of beer that refills itself, and there are pretty ladies dancing to a sound of fiddle that never ends. The idea of Fiddler’s Green was taken from an old Irish legend and adapted by sailors because at sea the dying did not have the chance to get properly anointed and therefore did not have the chance to enter Christian heaven.

9. Lowlands

Read the lyrics

A very sad capstan shanty(although it was probably sung more often in the forecastle). As with all shanties, there are many versions, but the basic story is that the sailor dreams about his love and in that instant he knows that she has died. There are versions where it’s the sailor’s girl that dreams about the sailor. Some versions are more elaborate and include sailors seeing red roses on his girl’s body as a symbol of blood, wet hair as a sign of drowning, and so on. In some versions after the death of a sailor the girl cuts her hair so that no other man will find her attractive.

10. Haul Away Joe

Read the lyrics

A short haul shanty. Another popular shanty among modern shantymen. It contains, in my opinion, the best two lines of any shanty or sea song: “When I was a little boy my mother always told me…That if I did not kiss the girls, my lips would grow all moldy.” The rest of the song usually tells about the sailor’s adventures with women of different nationalities until he finds one that’s “just a daisy.”

Sea Shanties in the Movies

Master and Commander Shanties

Jaws

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Hyder Kazmi September 23, 2008 at 9:59 pm

YES! I love sea shanties. My first (and only, really) exposure to them was this double-disc set, compiled by Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski (the actor and the producer from Pirates of the Caribbean) of a bunch of sea shanties and ballads and such sung by modern folk singers.

It’s called A Rogue’s Gallery and has most of the songs mentioned in this post; one of my favorites is Coast of High Barbary, sung in this collection by Loudon Wainright III. There’re some absolutely GORGEOUS songs, including one by Bono and Blood Red Roses by Sting.

Check it out, it really is something to listen to :)

2 Daniel Richard September 24, 2008 at 4:11 am

I’ve sent this on to a friend who’s going to be on the seas for a full month. Lol. :D

3 Emily September 24, 2008 at 4:22 am

If you’ve ever seen the “Horatio Hornblower” miniseries on A&E, they sing “Spanish Ladies” in one of those, too.

4 Bart September 24, 2008 at 9:46 am

Indeed, the Horatio Hornblower series is awesome, and in itself a lesson on honor, strength and general manliness. “Spanish Ladies” is my favorite of all the shanties posted.

This post reminded me of something I read in the American Communication Journal about “learning to Yo!”, a modern equivalent of singing a shanty to create a rhythm for working as a team. ( http://acjournal.org/holdings/vol4/iss2/articles/cyphert.htm )

Really cool article. Kudos Karmazon.

5 GBM September 24, 2008 at 12:40 pm

Can we get drinking songs next? Not that sea shanties aren’t wonderful, but it would be cool to have both.

6 karmazon September 24, 2008 at 4:06 pm

I can write about old, traditional and nautical drinking songs too, haha.

7 Bernie Franks September 24, 2008 at 4:25 pm

Great post. I agree, some classic drinking songs would be nice for another post.

8 Britt September 24, 2008 at 4:59 pm

Fiddlers green has also been used by the Cavalry, there it is used to tell of the rest stop on the way down to hell, only for cav soldiers. Regular infantry march right on down, but cav get to stop on a green field and take a rest, have a cool drink and refill their canteens, before walking on down.

There is a line that says that if you find yourself in a hopeless situation, about to be overrun, drink your canteen empty, put you pistol to your head, and you will awaken in Fiddlers Green.

9 Rodney Hampton September 24, 2008 at 5:48 pm

Great post. I enjoyed reading the Horatio Hornblower books, but the miniseries left me a little cold. I wish they could have done more to give it a realistic look and feel.

10 Paul September 24, 2008 at 7:30 pm

Give us songs all day long, for sure, but lay off the sacramental theology. Extreme unction (“anointing of the sick” in modern parlance), while desirable, has never been regarded as a prerequisite for salvation. The fear of Irish sailors and laborers of dying in remote places without access to the sacraments derived from the timeless Catholic understanding that man is vulnerable to a variety of temptations, which, if succumbed to, have little chance of being repented of, and would be substantially assisted by the ministry of the Church in such an hour. The anointing and other last rites are not akin to the coin placed with Roman corpses to pay the ferry toll across the Styx. That is, the physical quality of having been anointed does not function as a required talisman for entering heaven.

11 A. Hollis September 25, 2008 at 4:56 am

Great selection!
Two shanty-type songs that my mates and I are fond of are “Barett’s Privateers” (actually a modern song in the style of a traditional shanty)
(http://sniff.numachi.com/pages/tiBARTPRIV;ttBARTPRIV.html)
and “Sam’s Gone Away”
(http://sniff.numachi.com/pages/tiSAMGONE.html)

12 Alex September 25, 2008 at 6:14 am

I disagree with Paul. While Catholics have never thought of the sacrament of anointing the sick as a “talisman for entering heaven,” it is not wrong to think of it an essential sacrament for doing so. The Church believes all sacraments are essential and are channels of God’s grace. One of the purposes of last rites is to grant the person forgiveness of sins if they are unable to perform the sacrament of penance. And of course the sacrament of penance would come from confession of your sins to a priest. And if you were a sailor, such confession would of course been out of reach! So I would imagine that yes, they would have feared dying without their last rites.

13 Chris September 25, 2008 at 10:31 am

one missing that should be there

What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?/Sailor’s Holiday.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drunken_Sailor

14 Daniel Mick September 26, 2008 at 12:48 am

Easily one of the manliest posts ever on this site. Educational, inspiring, and entertaining.

15 Sean September 26, 2008 at 4:46 am

Here’s a great sea shanty performed by Planxty, a great old irish traditional music group. It’s called Sally Brown, and it’s the best performance of a sea shanty I’ve ever heard: http://ie.youtube.com/watch?v=fVKGnJ1thlI

16 Doconicus September 26, 2008 at 9:10 am

I am so d— glad you guys brought this up as an article.

If you want to hear a fantastic rendition of the previously mentioned songs, the 97th Regimental String Band had assembled nineteen great tunes all of which are sailor songs going back as far as Queens Anne War up to the U.S Civil War (though the epic song ‘Sinking of the Columbia’ is noticeably missing).

I stumbled across this album/CD when the Srgt of our Reenacting Group loaned it to me for my opinion. I never gave it back. (I hope he doesn’t miss it) It’s great, I even play if for my three your old son.

for a sample:
http://cdbaby.com/cd/97thrsb8

I have always loved sea shanties and continue hiustoric research on them.

Doconicus

17 richard September 26, 2008 at 9:23 am

I’m a huge shanty fan, too, though I generally avoid the more modern versions of these classic songs. I much prefer the low-tech rough edges and raw choruses of the vintage versions from the 40s and 50s.

Some of my favorite albums (and yes, there are indeed songs about drinking and wenching, as well as the usual sailing ones) [in order of most fave to least]:

Blow Boys Blow by Ewan MacColl & A.L. Lloyd
Whaling & Sailing Songs by Paul Clayton
Shanties & Songs of the Sea by Johnny Collins, Dave Webber & Pete Watkinson

And just for fun, it’s not really a sea shanty album, but has many buccaneer-inspired songs, Pegleg Tango by Captain Bogg & Salty. You’ll hum or whistle these songs for about the next 6 months. Very tame pirate references makes this a great kids’ album, too, though any fun-loving, pirate-minded adult will find much to love. “Pull Away Home” is a sweet and beautiful classic that deserves a hallowed spot in the catalog of sea-faring songs, authentic or not.

18 kickstand September 26, 2008 at 12:39 pm

Another good intro to Sea Shanties is the CD “Sea Music” by Dan Zanes and Friends.

19 A. Perry September 26, 2008 at 3:53 pm

Hate to be a nitpicker, but it’s ‘chanties’ (as in chanter-’to sing’ in French); ‘shanties’ are huts or shacks, as in the stereotype of ‘shanty Irish’, the putdown of poor/lower class Irish people.

20 pirate lover September 26, 2008 at 9:08 pm

actually, while the derivation is from the French chanter, you can use either spelling.

shanty, n.2, chant(e)y :
[Said to be a corruption of F. chantez imper. of chanter to sing.]
A sailor’s song, esp. one sung during heavy work.

-Oxford English Dictionary

i’m a bit of a shanty/chanty nerd

also- they are very manly, but as a girl I still quite like them :D

21 karmazon September 26, 2008 at 9:21 pm

You can spell them either way, and I never see them spelled “chanties”.

22 Bob Iger October 1, 2008 at 2:54 am

I think it’s great that Brett included “Spanish Ladies” in this list too. It’s one of my favorite sea shanties (as a matter of fact, I posted the lyrics on the AoM forum). This makes indeed for a very manly post.

23 Paul October 3, 2008 at 9:14 pm

I began researching sea chanties a few years back and have had limited luck finding artists that really sing to my liking. I tend to prefer them sung without the added noise of musical instruments. I have found some very good albums on Amazon, perhaps the best being by Johnny Collins:
http://www.amazon.com/Shanties-Songs-Sea-Johnny-Collins/dp/B00001OHA5/ref=pd_bbs_sr_3?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1223096940&sr=8-3

Perhaps the best chantie I’ve heard yet is Collins’ version of “South Australia” on the above album. The song is so manly as sung by Collins that I believe the first time I listened I could actually feel my sperm growing chest hair.

24 Barnes December 9, 2008 at 10:15 pm

Obviously there are many but a few imperative ones are 1. A Sailor’s Prayer A tale of men being shanghaied from drinking establishments by drinking “bad beer”. “Oh Lord above, send down a dove, to cut the throats of them those blokes whose sells bad beer to sailors” “Shanghaied Dredger”is another beauty, and is also about being… well shanghaied for another reason.

25 caroline pond December 15, 2008 at 5:43 pm

i love that you and I both are writing about sea shanties on our post. My buddy Andrew just turned me on to you and said that we both wrote a post on sea shanties at the same time. I just learned about sea shanties this weekend. What a quink a dink.
cheers.
caroline

26 paddy get back March 4, 2009 at 11:23 am

please please could you send me a clip of this sea shanty i love is :)
it is great you will like it as well
(i am mad and crazy about sea shanties AND PIRATES I LOVE THEM )
so thankyou ;) :) :-)

27 Rondog77 June 3, 2009 at 7:09 am

If you want a contemporary take on the shanty –Check out the indie band, The Decemberists —

esp… “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” and ” A Cautionary Tale”

28 John February 4, 2010 at 1:11 pm

Try The Hard Tackers on my space for a good sample

29 Martin Schilling March 22, 2010 at 11:47 am

Aww, I was really hoping to see “Barret’s Privateers” by Stan Rogers. He was a Canadian, he died from smoke inhalation in a fire on a plane that made an emergency landing. I’ve heard he was one of the first to get off the plane but went back in to help others evacuate. If that’s true then perhaps he deserves a spot on one of your “manliest” lists.

30 Hiawatha Bray May 8, 2010 at 12:24 am

Yes, Martin! I just stumbled across this wonderful article and the first thought in my mind was that it has to include Barrett’s Privateers, one of the greatest sea songs ever. A bit of cussin in it, but I find it irresistable nevertheless. Here it is on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZIwzRkjn86w

31 Manu September 23, 2012 at 1:11 pm

I love the Dropkick Murphys song I’m Shipping Up To Boston from the movie The Departed, is that a manly sea shant?

32 Mike September 23, 2012 at 4:25 pm

Mystic Seaport has an entire exhibit on sea chanteys. They also have a dedicated reenactment group. Since they have actual wooden tall ships at the museum there are able to demonstrate the use of shanties while using a capstan to raise and lower boats or in other shipboard chores.

33 Will February 13, 2013 at 5:21 am

Great songs, every one! And, if you are looking for manly renditions, you should listen to the great recording of Sea Shanties by the Men of the Robert Shaw Chorale. Recorded in 1961, but available on itunes, this is great singing. Too many favorites to list them all, but start with Whup! Jamboree.

34 Shannon March 17, 2013 at 2:15 am

In San Francisco we have a sea chantey sing at 8pm every 1st Saturday of the month aboard the Balclutha (formerly a whaling and merchant tallship) at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. All are welcome, but you should sign up about two weeks in advance, because it fills up quickly. If you forget, don’t worry, just show up for the 10pm slot which is usually not full. For more information please see http://www.nps.gov/safr/historyculture/chantey-sing.htm

35 flipper July 26, 2013 at 11:25 am

Friggin’ in the Riggin’ by the Sex Pistols.

Also known as Good Ship Venus.

36 Ensign D'Aria August 14, 2013 at 9:59 am

I really thought that you would have drunken sailor on here

37 mab foxen October 10, 2013 at 8:54 am

I think full credit should be given to John Conolly, who wrote Fiddlers’ Green. So many people assume this is just a traditional song.

38 mab foxen October 10, 2013 at 8:56 am

As a PS to my previous comment, here is a link to his website:
https://myspace.com/johnconolly

39 Andre January 1, 2014 at 10:01 am

omg, you left “The Drunken Sailor” out of the list of manliest sea chanteys (what do you do with a drunken sailor – throw him in the cabin with the captain’s daughter)?? EXPLAIN YOURSELF!

40 Chris Siddall March 2, 2014 at 4:12 pm

Yup I know all of those. Wouldn’t call myself a shantyman though, for that you need to know the right song for the job. Which can be tricky as lots of shanties have multiple names or different types say long-haul v capstan might have the same name but be entirely different songs. And be able to extemporize to fit the crews mood, or if you need an extra verse or two to get the job done. Being a sailor rather than a cook would help as well, I suppose. Of course the upside of being the shantyman on a commercial voyage at least, was an entitlement to an extra measure of grog. The old Grey Funnel line didn’t shanty whilst working as they were trained to the bosun’s call and word only.

41 John Evans March 6, 2014 at 9:16 am

I am looking for the name and lyrics for the song that has this verse:
As I went strollin’ down by the rollin’
Down by the rollin sea
……
I saw three witches watchin’ me
Thanks,
John

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