Sea Shanties and Folk Music

Curators and historians of folk music have long reiterated the importance of sea shanties in regards to folk music. And there is a varied mix of opinion where sea shanties originated from. One school of thought that it was from the slave trading boats, and another is that the originated from the British Navy.

Today shanties are never heard as they were originally supposed to be sung, since they were songs that accompanied certain tasks on sail ships. There were all manner of shanties such as, windlass shanties, pumping shanties, and capstan shanties and so on and so forth. Even during a voyage they would only be sung when there was work to do.

Today sea shanties are sung that in no way resemble what they would have sounded like. Harmonies have been added and fancy arrangements to suit choirs. Shanties were boisterous songs to enable sailors to pull on the ropes together, and not fancy ballads.

Similarities to Folk Music

What makes a song a sea shanty? Similar to folk music there is a lead singer, a shanty-man who sings a line to which the chorus replies to. This is especially effective on a boat where physical activities such as pulling on a rope needs cohesion.

This style of singing is very akin to many African songs and the kind you can find in churches and camp meetings all over America today. Obviously, the influence of African music came over to America in the early 19th Century and has stayed ever since. Some say this style of singing was responsible for the growth of country and folk music that took place in rural parts of America at that time.

The Slave Trade

It cannot possibly be rationalized that the sea shanty derives from the slave trade, this type of work song would have hardly been used on slaving ships by the very slaves themselves, as they were manacled beneath the decks.

The sea shanty must have originated from something that was communal and universal. There is documentation that even sailors on Venetian galleys back in the 15th Century sang sea shanties. A comment recorded at the time stated, a concert between one who sings out orders and the laborers who sing in response.

The Shanties of the Past

At the time sea shanties were thought of as offensive and the singing of them was banned on certain boats that had religious owners or captains. However when passengers used to listen to the sailors sing they would often construct their own more polite versions to take back home.

This is when the influence of the sea shanty started to be intertwined with other popular forms of music such as folk. There is a direct correlation between many forms of folk music to the sea shanty, the way the melody is constructed and the call and response type of format. The best places to hear the nearest to original singing of sea shanties are the great ports of the world where the songs have been maintained in maritime museums and where sailors have passed them down from father to son.


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