Category Archives: Culture: songs, stories, photography and art

Traditions and culture relevant to the world of real boating and sailors

Why aren’t all sea songs properly called shanties?

This essay explains a useful point:

‘Forebitters were not work songs. They were songs of the sea that were sung for entertainment purposes only. Crew members would sing forebitters during the dog-watches: the times of the day when they were involved in solo deck duty, such as emergency lookouts. … such songs were called ‘fore-bitters’, because they were sung round the fore bitts [big strong fittings used to secure anchor and mooring lines – Ed], or they were called ‘come-all-ye’s’, because so many began with the words “come all ye sailormen.”

‘These songs were also sung in the forecastle, or as shellbacks referred to it as, the fo’c’sle which were the men’s living quarters below deck.

‘A simple clue that a song is a just a song of the sea and not a sea shanty is its length and lack of a short call and response form. “Although these [forebitters] are now often grouped together with shanties by enthusiasts, a sharp distinction existed between these leisure-time songs and sea shanties in the life and mind of a
sailor”.’

So: shanties are work songs, like agricultural and railroad building work songs. Forebitters are sung at leisure – and the ones I know (which are quite numerous!) have all sorts of functions and themes, such as warning about the way sailors get treated ashore or on particular ships.

I have to say I like a good story – and so forebitters are often more my thing!

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Phil Underwood and the Bonnet and Belt company

I recently came across Phil Underwood, a chap I quickly learned is an excellent singer and musician – but it turns out he’s also a playwright, producer, director and canal enthusiast and runs the Bonnet and Belt theatre company.

A regular production the company puts on is Roses and Castles, a drama for the stage for four actors and one actor/musician that tells the story of the English canals from the 18th century to the present day, through the fortunes of a canal family and their boat across nearly two hundred years.

It’s based on Phil’s experiences as a boatman living on the Grand Union Canal, and features a mix of historical and original songs and music. Look out for future performances, which Phil will list here.

Here’s his song Canals of England, performed with able fiddler and singer Nancy Potts:

Britain Afloat: meet Jimmy Lawrence

Britain Afloat is on BBC One London and South East on Friday, 29 September at 19:30 and on BBC Two on Saturday 30 September at 20:00. It will also be available on the iPlayer across Britain for 30 days thereafter.

My thanks to Paul Tambini for the heads up…