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

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!

Sea shanties recorded in the 70s – John Roberts & Tony Barrand


The Black Ball Line Packet Ship ‘New York’ off Ailsa Craig by the Scottish artist William Clark (1803-1883)

Across the western ocean, part 1

Across the western ocean, part 2

I’m always interested in older recordings of sea shanties, not least because I tend to feel those sung by singers who have actually heard old time shanty singers have just a touch of authenticity.

These nice, clear radio station recordings of two Englishmen John Roberts & Tony Barrand and friends Jeff Warner, Susan Warner and Davey Jones show the fruits of some serious research, and I think are worth listening to – notwithstanding that the performances are neatly polished for public consumption… The lyrics are interestingly different from the standard ones we tend to hear, and the introductions are interesting and informative about the later sailing ship era.

‘The seamen would sing the most vulgar songs directly over my skylight… ‘ complained a lady diarist. I can’t say I’m surprised.

My thanks to Chris Brady for the tip-off!