Music11 Feb 2008 02:29 am
The sea shanty (from the French chanson: song) is a product of the explosion in European maritime exploration and trade, roughly corresponding the era A.D. 1600-1900. It is also a remarkable industrial management technique. While iconic amusement park rides and movies would have us believe that early modern crewmen were a merry and melodic bunch, prone to the spontaneous round or two at work or on the bowsprit, they do a disservice to the sea shanty in downplaying its essential role as metronome, or pace-setter, for backbreaking ship-side labor. (It is also probably best to avoid speculation on the relative psychological demeanor of sailors, one way or the other.)
Shanties established the working rhythms for nautical tasks, which called for synchronicity, in pre-mechanical days. Many of the songs encoded specific stage directions pertinent to the work at hand (that seemingly opaque line—“hooray and up she rises”—is all about the sail); a shantyman, or unofficial chorusmaster, would set the tempo by leading the call and response featured in so many of the tunes. Different chores gave rise to different kinds of shanties. Roughly, they can be broken down into categories:
•Long-haul (also called “halyard” or “long-drag” or “what you’re in for”) shanties: sung when a job of hauling on a line was expected to last a long time, generally feature two “pull” lines in each chorus.
•Short drag shanties: for shorter, difficult hauls, characterized by one strong pull in each chorus.
•Capstan shanties: The capstan was a giant winch to which the anchor was attached; the song was sung while pushing it.
•Stamp-’n'-go shanties: used on large ships to choreograph the complex series of movements and actions needed to raise the sail.
•Pumping shanties: sung while pumping the bilge of excess water.
•Fo’c's’le (Forecastle) songs: not actually shanties since they were sung in leisure hours; about as close to Disney as the shanty gets.
Below is a video of the Cornish antiquarian revival group, the Fisherman’s Friends, singing “South Australia”, a long haul shanty (heave away! haul away!) that was probably sung during the embarkation leg of the journey:
Though technology has made the practical use of the shanty obsolete, there is a fair amount of contemporary interest in the form, particularly in folk circles. For a list of sea song festivals worldwide, you can visit The Bitter End—the following is a sample of what an updated shanty sounds like (basically, a lot less elbow grease, a lot more ambient sound). Avast!
“High Barbaree” by Bounding Main
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