Tag Archives: shanties

Singing in the rigging

It’s something Norwegians do, apparently! And it has a wild quality that seems more plausible than some of the restrained stuff we hear from time to time.

The history of shanty singing

Pete Truin of the youthful shanty singing outfit The Ballina Whalers has written a thoughtful, informative article about the history of shanty singing. Great stuff Pete!

‘During this period of history, it has been said that there was an Irishman onboard every sailing ship of every nation and there can be no doubt that the prevailing folk song and ballad tradition in Western Europe gave rise to shanties with distinct narrative verses, often warning the sailors of the perils of venereal disease or unscrupulous landlords!’


‘The influence of African-American and West Indian work songs within the shantying tradition is profound, with many songs being closely related to plantation and railroad work songs in their structure, and many West Indian shantymen, such as Harry Lauder, being revered as excellent seamen and singers long after their passing. In the southern states of the USA, many European sailors rubbed shoulders and swapped songs with the dock workers loading their ships, when the hard work of screwing cotton bales down in the hold of the ships required both songs to haul the lifting tackle, and heaving songs to turn the heavy screws. Unlike the more narrative songs of the Liverpool-Irish tradition, the words of West Indian shanties were often improvised and interchangeable.’

I should add that The Ballina Whalers have a new album out…

Sea songs at Frittenden in Kent 2pm, this Saturday

We’re looking forward to a session of sea songs at the Bell & Jorrocks pub at Frittenden, Kent from 2pm on Saturday afternoon. The YouTube clip of me singing Maggie May above should give you a taste, but I’ll be only one of a crowd – we’ll have some great singers and musicians with us including Chris Roche, Andy Turner and Annie Dearman and Steve Harrison – and there will even be a proper sailor’s hornpipe.

Why not join us? Details are here.

Short Sharp Shanties volume 1 is out

Yankee Jack John Short

I know it’s a bit unconventional, but I sing in the car. I was once stopped by a couple of police officers worried I was crazed by drink or drugs, but I’m unrepentant about my technique for relieving the nearly unbearable tedium of driving: it keeps me cheerful and it’s a darn sight better than dozing off.

For the past fortnight I’ve been singing wherever I go, and the reason for all the noise in recent days is that the CD Short Sharp Shanties: sea songs of a Watchet sailor is newly released and on my CD player.

It’s the first of three volumes of sea songs collected from shantyman John Short by the noted folk song and dance collector Cecil Sharp. The songs are bloody marvellous, with strong anthemic choruses and often simple but highly effective tunes that have something in common with both playground songs and the best rock’n’roll classics.

They’re also easy to memorise for your own use – say for rowing, singing in a session or pub, or just keeping yourself awake behind the wheel – because so much of a shanty is repeated.

Short’s shanties are particularly interesting because they are often different versions from those collected later, for example by shantyman-turned-scholar Stan Hugill (buy his excellent books here). Some of them also seem to reveal just a little more of the African element of their origins.

The words of the verses and choruses cover all sorts of topics, from bragging fantasies about being missed by the girls of various ports and of home, excitement at going on a voyage somewhere exotic and strange, pride in the vessels, and the vicious bullying meted out by the captains and mates.

While the songs themselves are uniformly splendid, the performances on this first Short Sharp Shanties collection are extremely varied – with the result that listeners will inevitably like some more than others. This is because Tom and Barbara Brown, who led the project, and CD label boss Doug Bailey arranged for the songs to be led by a collection of very different of well-known singers, not all of them noted for singing this kind of material, and allowed them arrange and perform the material in the way they wished. So at different times the singers sound variously like hard-working sons of toil, carefully wrought works of scholarship and the dreamy laments wistful fair maidens.

That’s how it’s gone with shanties in the decades since the end of the commercial cargo-carrying sailing ships – around the maritime festivals, folk festivals and folk clubs they are often presented in all these ways and more.

The worksong type of approach adopted here by Tom and Barbara Brown, Keith Kendrick, Jeff Warner and a very piratey-sounding Jim Mageean must be the most appropriate, but it has to be said that the Jackie Oates’s very un-blokey arrangement of Tommy’s Gone is so pretty I can imagine it becoming a kind of folkie hit single.

Roger Watson’s pleasant, very musical approach to these songs is also more tune and arrangement and less work. Sam Lee’s brave and effective attempt to recreate Short’s extraordinary wandering style of singing verses provides a fascinating insight – though it’s difficult to see how the working party could know when the pull or push might be coming.

If only Sharp had used sound recording equipment instead of paper and pencil, we’d know so much more about how they used to sing this stuff – or at least we’d know how an elderly gentleman of 92 years performed them long after he left the rythmic toil involved in working capstans and pumps and hauling halliards.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to volume 2 of this collection. I don’t know when it’s due for release, but when it comes out I plan to enjoy some more bawling, ranting and roaring behind the wheel. In the meantime, why not buy a copy of volume 1 and join me?

I’ve been given permission to put up a couple of sample MP3s: Sing Fare You Well sung and played by Keith Kendrick and The Bully Boat (Ranzo Ray) sung by Tom Brown . If you want any more, you’d better buy a copy for yourself!

PS – If you enjoy sea songs, take a peek at our Songs, tunes and videos page.

PPS – There’s a very useful page on sea shanties on the Wikipedia.

First of three Yankee Jack shanty CDs about to be launched

Yankee Jack John Short

The first of three CDs presenting the entire collected repertoire of the legendary Somerset shanty singer John ‘Yankee Jack’ Short will be launched at the end of May this year.

The songs were collected from the deep water sailor by the great folklorist Cecil Sharp in 1914. In all, Yankee Jack gave Sharp a total of 60 songs, 47 of which were included in Sharp’s influential book English Folk Chanteys.

Some of the sixty are familiar but others are rarer, and the songs not included in the book have remained unsung – until now.

Within the three CDs can be found everything from wild chants from the cotton ports of the Southern United States to texts of classic English folk songs, and from wistful contemplative laments to outright bawdiness.

Some of the shanties are believed to date from a very early point in shanty-singing.

All the songs on the CDs have been taken directly from Sharp’s manuscripts rather than from his book, with the aim of making them as close to Short’s versions as possible.

The genesis of the project was when well known singers Tom and Barbara Brown found the shanty Rosabella tucked away in one of Sharp’s manuscripts in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House in London - they then passed the song on to friends including shanty singers Johnny Collins and Jim Mageean, and it quickly became popular among revivalist singers.

As well as Tom and Barbara, the performers on this disc on the WildGoose label include Jim Mageean, Keith Kendrick, Sam Lee, Jackie Oates, Roger Watson, Brian Willoughby and Jeff Warner, from the USA.

The CD is also dedicated to the memory of Johnny Collins, who would certainly have been involved in the project if he had not sadly died two years ago.

The launches of the first CD of the series are to be an invitation-only event on the evening of Tuesday 24th May at the Esplanade Club at Watchtet and at the Saturday afternoon of Chippenham Folk Festival at Chippenham in Wiltshire on the Whitsun bank holiday weekend.

The remaining CDs will be released as a double album later in the year.



Some big stars at the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival 2009, Portsoy, 2nd-5th July



Photo by Kathy Mansfield

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The harbour at the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival, Portsoy

This year the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival at Portsoy has been extended by two days this year to include a symposium of fascinating speakers from around the world, in addition to the boating programme.

Special seminars on shanty singing, boat design, sail weaving and gansey knitting will take place around the harbour, and the renovated Salmon Bothy opened last year will host exhibitions, demonstrations and entertainments, and there will even be a genealogical research facility for those wishing to explore their roots.

The Bothy, which opened at last year’s festival, is now a fully fledged museum of Portsoy’s history and the salmon fishery.

The programme of music, song and dance will feature internationally renowned shanty expert and singer Bob Walser. Bob is a hugely experienced performer, speaker and tutor, and is currently researching sea shanties and sailors’ songs as part of an international team preparing a heavyweight critical edition of the James Madison Carpenter folklore collection, funded by the British Academy and the National Endowment for the Humanities (USA) with the cooperation of the Library of Congress, the American Folklore Society and the Elphinstone Institute at the University of Aberdeen.

Click on this earlier intheboatshed.net post on James Madison Carpenter to hear some sailor’s voices from the past.

In fact, the more I look at the various bits of information available, the more I realise that Bob is just one of a stellar collection of speakers at Portsoy this year. Son of Aberdeen and now resident in the US, singer, knitter and weaver Noman Kennedy will demonstrate and perform.

Singer-demonstrators Bjorn Lunde and Johanne Tvedten from Norway will teach and demonstrate boatbuilding skills to children, while Fair Isle boatbuilder Ian Best will speak on the origins of Norwegian and Scottish traditional boat building.

Aberdeen Maritime Museum keeper John Edwards will discuss the great clipper ship traditions of the North East, while world-renowned yacht designer Nigel Irens will describe current and future development in boat design.

Wooden Boat magazine editor Matt Murphy will speak on the great classic yacht designs and small boat design legend Iain Oughtred will talk about the influences that create the best boat designs.

Read all about it at the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival website.

Shanghaied out of Frisco in the Nineties by Hiram P Bailey – part 4


Three more chapters from Shanghiaed out of Frisco in the Nineties. This time, religious material in the lazaret; a trip ashore; and a sea possum.

‘To practise this black art of tarring, one hand clutches the jackrail; the other hand clutches a piece of canvas that serves as a brush; the tarpot is slung and moved in the best way available. The performer then stoops to conquer. And God help him if any drops reach the holystoned decks below! The great expanse of view exposed to me from the masthead gave me a good idea of the coast-line.’

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For the rest of this series of posts:
Shanghaied out of Frisco in the Nineties by Hiram P Bailey – part 1

Shanghaied out of Frisco in the Nineties by Hiram P Bailey – part 2

Shanghaied out of Frisco in the Nineties by Hiram P Bailey – part 3

Shanghaied out of Frisco in the Nineties by Hiram P Bailey – part 4

Shanghaied out of Frisco in the Nineties by Hiram P Bailey – part 5

Shanghaied out of Frisco in the Nineties by Hiram P Bailey – part 6

Shanghaied out of Frisco in the Nineties by Hiram P Bailey – part 7