Shanties – what are they?

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Not everyone knows that Shanties are the work songs used on board the tall and majestic wooden ship from the great days sail, that travelled around the world primarily in pursuit of commerce.

These songs were divided into different types of chants to suit the wide variety of jobs aboard these sailing ships during the days before steam and during those latter days of the early nineteen hundreds, when both steam and sailing ships could be seen on the oceans of the world.

There was a great variety of work on board the tall ships and the Shantyman had to have a song or chant which matched the speed at which the job could be done. Of course, even these regular Shanties (Set Chants) had to be adjusted to suit the varying weather conditions and the songs focused the energy required to perform each task.

The shanties were created (written versions came much later) to help set and maintain an efficient rhythm for the work on most merchant vessels but the navies of the world, those Man-of-War vessels, preferred fife and drum and shanties were generally not allowed in those very strict environments.

Initially we can divide the shanties into heaving and hauling. For example, heaving at a capstan bar or hauling on a rope. These can be further divided into jobs that required a long or short haul, and these can be divided further into more specific applications.  Within this work-song singing idiom there is an incredible variety of such chants, with many different songs from around the world, which were adapted independently for each sail and job on board.

The following are a brief example of some shanty application types:



The capstan (windlass) shanties

Capstan shanties were used to pluck the anchor from the sea bed, for warping the ship to dock or to the anchor, and sometimes even for setting a sail.

The Shantyman mobilsed and motivated the crew with a song that concentrated the physical effort of a group of sailors to maximise the collective value of the energy of all those involved in the manoeuvre. The song determined the pace and the experienced shantyman was required to determine what was reasonable in every case. After plucking the anchor from the bottom, the team at the capstan continued until the anchor was won and catted home.


Halyard and sheet shanties

These halyard shanties were used when setting the various square sails on square-rigged vessels but also on other vessels which were not square-rigged (such as Gaff, Lateen sails, etc) The Halyard work was generally more demanding in terms of physical effort and there are a great variety of halyard shanties from sailors from the seven seas. There were great variety of songs or chants, created during the days of sail, to match the different sails to be set.  The lower, largest and heaviest of the sails were referred to as courses, progressing and decreasing in size as we ascend the mast through Tops’ils, Upper Tops’ils, Topgallants and Royals. Each sail and yardarm (Spars) having a different weight and therefore a different pace for setting. Of course, there were also two or three masts with a similar array of sails. Sailing ships with four masts, when all masts were square rigged were called Full-Rigged Ships.

As the pace was critical the shantyman had to decide on the various considerations of weight and weather factors before starting his shanty.  The role of the shantyman was therefore critical to the efficient working of the ship. When the work was done the shantyman called ‘Belay!’ the shanty finished and shantyman normally fitted the ‘stopper-knot’ to the sheet being hauled, while the sheet was being made fast to the ‘belaying pin’. This ‘belaying pin’ held the pressure of weight and wind. The shantyman then called ‘Ease to the Stopper’ and the sailors slowly reduced their efforts to ensure that when the pressure finally came on the sheet or rope that ‘working pressure’ did not undo the work and the sheet was securely made-fast around the belaying pin..



Brace shanties

This was lighter work but could be a more frequent activity, especially during continuous tacking. As the wind changed direction the sails were braced around to ensure that they caught and maximised the full benefit of available wind-power. This was also required every time the ship had to change direction or track.

Reef shanties

As the winds increased at sea, sail had to be reduced to ensure the safety of the vessel, the sailors and passengers alike. This was called reefing. Raising up or shortening a wet sail in bad weather while standing on a rope tow-line, way above the sea, as the ship was rolling to wind and wave was tough and dangerous work and there was no protection.

The Exmouth Shanty Men from UK at the festival in Krakow showed the best example of the reef shanties. Gentleman have beautifully showed the importance of the rate of the Shanties.

Pump shanties

The name itself defines the purpose of these shanties. Again, it is all about setting a reasonable work pace. The shanty for pumping was probably more uniform than the other shanties, which were influenced by external conditions. The pumping shanties were therefore more predictable although in bad weather pumping the water out of the hold of a leaky ship was occasionally of a very immediate importance.

Sea songs

Although shanties and sea songs seem closely linked, there is a distinct difference between them. The shanty was strictly developed for work applications and did not have to have any particular sequence or story based logic. Whereas, the Sea-Song told a story about people and ships and landsmen or the sailor getting the better of the landsman, or about piracy or storms and therefore had to have a chronological sequence with a clear beginning and end.


Sailors often carried tales from their homelands to the decks of ships, thus creating stories that have stood the test of time and permanently appeared on many world stages. At present, shanties are still being sung, but only as part of our ‘folk heritage’ – memories of tough times and hard men.  As there are fewer of the Tall Sailing Ships ploughing the high seas, and every year the numbers decline, there are less opportunities for Shanties to be applied as they were in the eighteen and early nineteen hundreds. Under such conditions, trainee sailors do not have that hands-on experience or love of the lore of the sea and therefore no interest in drawing on and maintaining the wealth of historic sea songs which every country has in store.


Unfortunately, the tall ships that are left are used for sail training and commercial/promotional opportunities, but the job of the Shantyman is not part of this training exercise, which is a great pity and a great loss, both from the point of view of skillset development and from an historic perspective.


None-the-less, the Sea Songs are maintained by historians and performers of all maritime history and are an integral part of the global network of Maritime Festivals. In fact, it now forms part of our global folk culture.  The Shanty Festivals and general Maritime Festivals are of immense importance in terms of preserving the historic references to real maritime events and to the creativity of the shantyman, which helped drive the ships of the world as efficiently as possible for hundreds of years as they travelled the globe using the natural force of the winds and tides.



Shanties and sea songs embrace a rich musical culture, music that, while not complicated, and often with trivial and unrelated lyrics, are as real as the great wooden vessels of the past and as salty as the bow wave on tall ship.


Both Shanties and Sea Songs therefore, reflect the tougher side of a sailor’s life, with references to drunkenness, home sickness, loose women, important ports of call, trade winds, the sailing difficulties of Cape Horn, whaling and cotton industries, fishing industries and many more aspects of our global maritime traditions and history.


There is a global realisation that the regular celebration of this rich folk culture connects generations with a very real evolutionary view of our past that has brought us to where we are today. The Maritime Festivals around the world have an important role to play in the preservation of this incredible maritime culture which is historically relevant to all the countries of the world who have relied on the sea for food and trade for millennium.


Our objective therefore, is to play our part in cultivating and preserving this sea music tradition, to combine generations in historic song, as we gather to talk, sing and tell the stories of the rich and sometimes savage beauty of the sea.


Our festival team strongly believe that the  International Maritime Folk Festival Flekkefjord will be a festival that will give joy, not only to the inhabitants of Flekkefjord, but also to the many visitors and tourists who will come to our city to see tall ships and hear from the greatest of the singers from around the world who regularly contribute to maintaining a strong link with this aspect of maritime history.


We believe that we are going to create a first-class musical experience throughout the festival and help keep the techniques of this singing tradition alive for passing to the next generations of maritime singers. So, we invite you to come and enjoy the incredible variety of maritime traditions from around the world first hand.


Writen by Pat Sheridan
Paweł Paco Kaliciński