the following is excerpted from
favorite sea songs of the ancient mariners chanteymen
by howard hornstein

shanties (shanty) are work songs. this is spelled "chantey" or "chanty" if you happen to be a "proper englishman" who believes the word may have "chant" as its origin. and it would be spelled "chantey" if it derived from the french command, "chantez! -- sing!", cried the french soloist to mark the beginning of the chorus. however, there is also ample evidence in the literature that the word originated with the american lumbermen, railroad workers, dock hands and sailors of the mid 1800's. these were generally hard working, drinking, nomadic men who sang all day to ease their burden of work. they lived in shanties provided at their work camps and they relaxed, drank, and sang their favorite songs in shanties near the camps or along the waterfronts from new brunswick to new orleans. so their songs came to be called "shanty songs" by early folklorists. in one collection of songs from the maine woods dating about 1870, the word "shantyman" was a synonym for "lumberman."(1) today the spellings are used interchangeably. for present purposes, i prefer to use "chantey."

if i were to venture a guess, i would suggest that the practice of voicing rhythmic sounds while working may be as old as mankind and probably is intrinsic to human nature. permit me a brief excursion to the land of "more than you ever care to know" and let me report that the first written reference i learned of regarding nautical 'chanteying' as we know it today, -- with a lead singer (chanteyman) coordinating the work of singing mariners by means of a rhythmic song -- appears in 1493. felix fabri, a dominican friar, sailed from germany to palestine aboard a venetian galley and he described, "mariners who sing when work is going on -- -- [there is] a concert between one who sings out orders and the laborers who sing in response."(2)

seasongs.gif (3267 bytes)the heyday of sail -- when international commerce depended upon square-rigged ships, white canvas, and human muscle -- lasted hundreds of years but came to an end about 1920. a writer in the st. james's gazette of december 6, 1884 says, "the beau-ideal chanty-man has been relegated to the past. his death-knell was the shriek of the steam-whistle and the thump of the engines."(3) but for a period of years between 1812 and 1862, the american clipper ships sailed the seas without a rival. until other nations learned to copy our designs, the maritime world stood in awe of what we had accomplished. the american clipper ship was, "a thing of supreme use and beauty, fulfilling the mind`s desire for power and the heart`s romantic and passionate aspiration[s] to a degree never before attained by the efforts of man."(4) the flying cloud, launched in april, 1851, represented the epitome of the american ship building industry. she was built in the shipyard of donald mckay of east boston. a reporter for the boston daily atlas of april 25, 1851 wrote, "if great length [235 ft.], sharpness of ends, with proportionate breadth [41 ft.] and depth, conduce to speed, the flying cloud must be uncommonly swift, for in all these she is great." throughout the 1850's, the ship proceeded to set many sailing records, such as new york to san francisco in 89 days, and once covered 402 miles in 24 hours. another example immortalized in song was the dreadnaught. the dreadnaught was a medium clipper (packet) built by currier and townsend, newburyport, mass., 1853. from 1853 to1864, she made 31 round trips between new york and liverpool for the red cross line of new york.

this was also a time when whaling ships sailed from many countries. but probably the toughest of all whaling men were those who manned the american ships sailing out of atlantic coast ports such as new bedford and mystic. these ships hunted whales from arctic to antarctic waters, around cape horn and across the atlantic and pacific oceans. a whaling voyage could last up to four years and the conditions these men endured, particularly during polar winters were nearly indescribable(20). the accomplishments of these men and their ships is recorded with great pride in museums at mystic, connecticut., and gloucester, new bedford, and kendall in massachusetts. the charles w morgan, americas' last wooden whaleship, is beautifully restored and now sits dockside as a major educational exhibit at the mystic seaport museum at mystic, connecticut. the morgan is a three masted full rigged whaling ship built in 1841 at the shipyard of jethro and zachariah hillman in fairhaven, massachusetts, for captain charles w. morgan of new bedford. between 1841 and 1921, she made 37 whaling voyages. in 1941, she was purchased by the mystic seaport museum.

it was during the last hundred years (1820 to 1920) and mainly in america that 'chanteying' really flourished. chanteys were used by sailors to lighten certain backbreaking tasks and to enliven their leisure hours. the words and music have been described as simple and direct, wild and spirited, salty and rough as a north atlantic gale. in fact, they were a reflection of the sailors themselves. these songs, with a few exceptions, were not those current and popular ashore at the same period. rather, they were traditional, not written down, and evolved as all folksongs do out of the experience and needs of men.

aboard ship, the chanteys followed a definite pattern according to the tasks for which they were needed. most often, they consisted of short solo passages by the chanteyman which were well heard by those around him, followed by a chorus roared out in full voice by all hands which carried great distances on the wind. in the short-drag and halyard chanteys, which required hauling on rope lines by hand in order to raise, turn, or take in sail, the stanza was usually made up of two or three solo lines, each followed by a chorus. for jobs that required heavy, continuous action, such as raising the anchor by turning the capstan or pumping water from the ship with the windlass, the structure of the chantey was more elaborate. verses were generally longer and there might be one or two short choruses, followed by a long one that completed the stanza (see roll the woodpile down).

the chanteyman often used improvisation and parody in his solo lines to the advantage and amusement of the crew. but the chorus lines, on which the work action was based, were repetitive and changeless(5). for example, in using blood red roses to raise the top-sails, top gallant sails (t'ga'n's'ls), or sky-s'ls, the chanteyman -- who on some ships also put his back to the task -- would have sounded off thus:

chanteyman: me bonnie bunch o' roses, o!
crew: go down! ye blood red roses. go down!
chanteyman: chanteyman: it's time for us to roll an' go!
crew: go down! ye blood red roses. go down!

the words in italics, go, were the signals for the men to haul back on the halyards.

chanteymen were generally proud of their reputations for improvisation and originality and they tried not to repeat the same line twice. if the ending of the song arrived before the job was completed, they either added something new, or fell back on a series of common stock lines used for "piecing out" on such occasions. this explains why the same lines appear in so many different chanteys -- such as "goin' 'round the horn/wish ya never was born" and "heard the old man say/go ashore and take yer pay".

additionally, it was a prized chanteyman who could surprise a laugh from the crew and thereby make the job seem easier or inspire the men to work harder. hugill, in his books and in person, made reference to the obscenity in sea chanteys and how he was forced to clean up the lyrics to get his work into print, sometimes changing the whole feeling of the song. my two thoughts on this are first, those days of oblivious censorship are hopefully long over. secondly, when the chanteyman did improvise using "plain" language, (the chorus lines were almost always proper -- and much louder), it was with a kind of forthright, honest, and jovial obscenity that makes people laugh even when the songs are heard today.

although the era of the full-rigged sailing ship came to an end, many chanteys have survived to our great good fortune. this occurred for a number of reasons. first, not all of the old-time sailors were the irresponsible drifters portrayed in the songs who, once ashore, got drunk and remained that way until their money was either spent or lifted by some trollop. there were many who had families and hurried home when their ships made port. as soon as the winter winds began to blow, they made every effort to get shore jobs rather than risk death by going aloft. some signed onto southern cotton packets heading for mobile or new orleans. others went to the railroad construction gangs, and some to the lumber camps along the east coast of america and canada. naturally they brought their songs along with them and many melodies and words were adapted and exchanged (see the remarkable derivation of clear the track). thus, the music was passed on to more and more people.

secondly, many of the songs were and still are so beautiful to hear that they were passed on even if there was no practical use for them. shenandoah is a wonderful example. this haunting melody probably began with the american boatmen of the ohio, missouri, and mississippi rivers sometime in the 1840s. and it was so widely appreciated by frontiersmen and settlers that it was carried all across the country. deepwater seamen probably heard it in the gulf ports of mobile and new orleans, "adjusted" it for use at the capstan, and spread it across the seven seas. today, historians only venture to guess that the name shenandoah is probably a corruption of the name of a famous chief of the oneida indians, skenandoah(6). and songs like blow the man down and rolling home will live as long as men have voices to sing.

among the sailors and people on shore who loved the music were a number of scholars. this is another reason for the survival of a wealth of chantey information. men and women like stan hugill, joanna colcord, william doerflinger, and the poet carl sandburg gave us volumes of material based upon their own experiences as well as research. the definitive work on sea music belongs to stan hugill(7), who for some time was also the last living chanteyman from the days of commercial sail. before passing on in 1992, he appeared several times at the mystic seaport sea music festival where he taught, entertained, and pronounced judgment on the performers. the ancient mariner chanteymen were fortunate to have listened to and been listened to by "god" stan at mystic in 1989. upon hearing their rendition of "donkey riding," he was heard to remark, "that's the way that song 'oht-ta' be sung."

frankly, throughout many years of listening to different groups and performers, i have often wondered what kind of voices those sailors who actually used chanteys had and how they really sounded. from what i have been able to learn, the sound was inspiring to all who heard it (see away rio and johnny come down to hilo). smith writes of visiting a sailors' home in northern england and being "very agreeably surprised at the effect of some of these chanty choruses; some of the men present had really good voices, and they sang with a life and spirit, and with as much rhythmical accuracy as though they were miles away on the briny ocean..."(3)

however, libraries filled with volumes and maritime museums around the world would serve no purpose if not for the ever growing number of devotees who love this form of music. and it is nothing less than genuine love for the music that motivated the ancient mariner chanteymen to weekly practice, year after year to return to mystic seaport -- at first to learn and eventually to perform as well.

the ancient mariner chanteymen have many to thank for their inspiration. chief among them is good friend and mentor, cliff haslam, a right and proper english "chanteyman". we wish everyone would have the opportunity to witness cliff shake the walls of a room as his booming bass baritone brings new life to an old chantey. and in the next moment, to listen while he sings a sweet ballad that would bring tears to the eyes of an executioner -- hardly a dry eye in the room!

we owe thanks to those who brought the mystic festival to prominence, so we could "rub shoulders" with talents like louis killen, jeff warner, holdstock and mccleod, and even doerflinger and hugill themselves. our fondest hope is that we might also inspire someone who can use this book to "do it our way."

-�howard hornstein, 1996 - 1998

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