A sea shanty is a working song sung by sailors while performing repetitive tasks upon a ship. The rhythms of the songs coincided with the sailors’ movements as they worked, helping to ease the burden of hard physical labor and relieve boredom. The word “shanty” may have derived from the French word chanter, which means “to sing.” Another theory is that the word derived from American sailors and dock workers, who lived in “shanties,” or crude, rustic shacks.
The use of the sea shanty was most popular during the Age of Sail, from the 16th to the mid 19th century. Square rigged sailing ships, which were propelled almost exclusively by manpower, were abundant during this time, and were used to facilitate International trade. This resulted in a demand for sailors, who spent long hours at sea working the lines of the ships. The lack of entertainment coupled with the strain of hard work probably spawned the very first sea shanty.
A real sea shanty was never sung during a sailor’s leisure time, but only while working. Today, sea shanties are performed as a type of popular traditional music by choral groups and folk singers. Many songs that we think of as sea shanties in modern times are actually “Foc'sle” songs that the sailors sang during their free time, but not real historical sea shanties.
There are three basic types of sea shanties, with a different type being used for each different task. A halyard sea shanty, also known as a long-haul shanty, was sung while performing heavy work that required more time in between pulls. A short-haul shanty, also known as a short-drag shanty, was sung while performing quick tasks that required great strength. A capstan shanty was sung while performing repetitive tasks that lasted a long period of time, and didn’t require pulling on lines, such as raising the anchor. Sometimes sailors would change the rhythm of one type of shanty to fit the task at hand.
A sea shanty is typically sung by a shantyman, or the self-appointed song leader, and a group of sailors who respond to him. Shantymen were well respected and valued on every ship, as they boosted the morale of the sailors and kept them working. The shantyman calls out a line of the sea shanty, and the sailors respond with a corresponding line of the song. The sailors synchronize their movements with the last syllable of each line.