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Sea shanties

"The singing of sea shanties as working songs at sea is a lost art" - Alan Villiers, 1961

When Ham and Shem and Japhet, they walked the capstan round,
Upon the strangest vessel that was ever outward bound,
The music of their voices from wave to welkin rang,
As they sang the first sea shanty that sailors ever sang.



Shanties are work songs with oft-repeated refrains sung to a rhythm that would coordinate the job at hand, heaving, hauling, pushing or turning. They must not be confused with ballads - many of which were sung at sea or by sailors in harbour - nor even with other fo'c'sle songs; unless they were shipboard work songs, they are not sea shanties

To recap the theories on the origins of the word:

1. French "chantez" - either Norman French, Modern or 'Gumbo' dialect of New Orleans.

2. English "chant" or Old English "chaunt"

3. The drinking Shanties of the Gulf ports (Mobile in particular) where black and white would congregate. Note that this is slightly less tenuous than 6. below, as, despite the non "musical" origin of the word, many coloured sailors went to sea from this area during the C19th and made reputations as singers of work songs.

4. Much the same as 3. - in Australia a "shanty" is a public-house, especially an unlicensed one (1864) and to shanty is to carouse or get drunk. Again, during the C19th, many seagoing shanteymen came from Australia and few people are likely to deny that drinking and singing (and sailors!) often go together.

5. Boat songs of the old French voyageurs of the New World, known as chansons (L.A. Smith, C.F. Smith)

6. The lumbermen's songs which often start with "Come all ye brave shanty-boys" a shantyman here being a lumberman or a backwoodsman. However, it must be noted here that the derivation is systematically given as from the French, via French-Canadian, "chantier" - a work site or workshop, and not from "chanter" - to sing. I therefore find the extension "worshop/lumberman" to "deep sea shipboard songs" quite tenuous.

7. West Indian Negroes used to move their shanties (huts built on stilts) by gangs pulling with a singing leader perched on the roof - he was the shanty man.

8. Finally, one that can be laid to rest: it does not come from the "chanter" of the bagpipes - fiddles, concertinas and accordions are bad enough to keep in shape at sea, a set of pipes is impossible - believe me, I've tried it!


"Shorter Oxford English Dictionary - on Historical Principles" 1927, reprint 1953, gives, page 1864: "Shanty ... Also chant(e)y 1869 (perhaps a corruption of French chantez, imperative of chanter to sing.) A sailor's song, esp. one sung during heavy work." The word is NOT listed under C - chantey.

However, some US sources do use C - Chantey as the primary reference: The Columbia Encyclopedia (Columbia University Press, 1935) gives: "Chantey or shanty, work song with marked rhythm, particularly one sung by a group of sailors while pulling ropes or pushing the capstan.... Similar songs are also sung by shore gangs and lumbermen..." The entry "Shanty" just refers back to this one with the "C".

I have also been advised: "My Websters twentieth century dictionary (2200 pages) shows 'chantey', as a song that sailors sing when working, to enliven the work by marking rhythm. and a "shanty" as a hut or shabby dwelling. There is no reference to alternate spellings." However, my Websters New World Dictionary, 1953, shows "Shantey... a chantey, a sailor's work song: also shanty." as well as the two other entries above.

The Oxford English Dictionary refers to an article in Chamber's Journal of 1869, and is not quite correct. I.E. Barra writes of a voyage in the middle of the 1840's (exact year not known) and quotes the Mate "Give us a shanter". Nordhoff in "The merchant vessel" and G.E. Clark in "Seven Years of a Sailor's Life" (both 1867) use "chantyman" or "chanty-man" but not "chanty". This is what prompted me to publish (many years ago) a little theory that there is a tendency in English to use the "S" and in American to use the "C". While statistically valid (up to the 1950's, now the tendency is definitely "S"), it is based on mathematics, not etymology.

The first 'discussion' on the spelling I know of is in fact Captain W.B. Whall b. 1837, d. 1925?, Master Mariner, who was intended for the Church, went up to Oxford and studied music under Sir John Stainer, but then went to sea in 1861. For the first few years he was shipmate of old men-of-wars men from "before the peace" (1815). He stated "Since 1872, I have not heard a Shanty or Song worth the name. Steam spoilt them." The first edition of his "Sea Songs and Shanties" was 1910 by Brown, Son and Ferguson, Glasgow, 1910. "As to the spelling of shanty, the earliest collection known to us, published about 1875, calls these ditties "Shanty Songs", meaning we suppose, songs from the shanties. Many of the early ones were certainly nigger; for example, "Way! Sing Sally", "Jamboree", "Let de bulgine run"; and though as a rule white men did not sing "nigger", still there were hundreds of coloured men in our ships, both naval and mercantile, and many of these songs came from the shanties, as the Negro huts on the Southern plantations were called. In any case why go to the French when we have the good old English word "chant?" There are many good French sea songs of this class, but they are not called "chanteys".

Certainly, the few knowledgeable writers prior to the mid 19th century (example R. Dana, Two Years before the Mast) refer to the singing of ditties and songs etc, but do NOT use the word shanty in any form.

Kipling is often quoted as using both spellings: but it was his Editors who decided, depending on what edition you consult, it's either 'C' or 'S'. The only manuscript I have seen (Brit Mus) has 'S'. John Masefield, also a sailor who became poet laureate later in life, uses 'S'

Doerflinger 1951, and Hugill (1961) - considered as the two most knowledgeable writers on the subject - both refer extensively to Whall (and to a few more obscure references that I do not quote here, they add little), but do NOT come to a conclusion. But then again, nobody else has "proof"!

Note that many Scots, including David W. Bone, "a whillom chantyman" from Edinburgh (in his "Capstan Bars", 1931) who started at sea in the C19th [1], spell shanty with a "C". This is maybe because of French blood in many Scottish families since bygone days. I used this spelling - until I read Captain Whall who wrote in 1910: "As to the spelling of 'shanty', I see no reason why, because shore people have fancied a derivation of the word and written it 'chanty', I should follow. It was not so pronounced at sea, and to spell it so is misleading".

There is no proof one way or the other whether French "to sing" or Negro huts were the origins of the word - probably never will be "proven" - so I find Whall's down to earth attitude easy to side with.

The proliferation of publications over the last ten years has very definitely favoured 'shanty', which is certainly the way it was always pronounced at sea, although I have found one (Webster) US reference to "chantey" pronounced with a hard "ch" - "tshantey".


"Farewell and adieu" (Spanish Ladies) is probably one of the oldest and best known Royal Navy shanties. It has been documented in use as a homeward bound, up (English) Channel working shanty for more than 200 years (Ref: Hugill, "Shanties from the Seven Seas"; Captain Frank Shaw, "Splendour of the Seas"; Captain W.B. Whall, "Sea Songs and Shanties" etc.). Hugill even wrote in 1961: "A version altered to suit a Bluenose ship approaching its homeport was to be heard among Nova Scotia seamen 50 years ago".


As far as "Shenandoah" is concerned, Doerflinger, Whall, Hugill et al all agree that it originated as a river shanty, but definitely became a deep-water favourite. David W. Bone (again in his "Capstan Bars", 1931) started at sea in the 1870 but wrote "it is of American origin, and probably came into use at sea when the great Yankee clippers out of Bath and Salem . . . . There is a version that connects the song to an Indian Chief named Shenandoah, but I like to have the song that of a sea-wandering native of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley in Virginia".

Nancy Dawson

A common rendition of "Nancy Dawson".

Words and music for Nancy Dawson

"Cheerily Man" or "Nancy Dawson" is a well known tune, more often known as "Cheerily Man" in the sailor's world. It is named after Miss Nancy Dawson, a mid C18th stage dancer, who used it for her evolutions on the stage. Before this it was known under other titles, many bawdy (in fact Hugill states that it was "the most primitive" and "obscene to a degree and most versions have had to be camouflaged") (Miss Colcord gives this as an "English" shanty, and appears to want to wash her hands of it, although Richard Henry Dana sang it aboard the brig Pilgrim), and it may be found in Johnson's Caledonian country dances, with a through bass for ye harpsichord 1750 3d. ed., with additions. English Books/Text [iv] p., 100 leaves. music. 13 x 22 cm. London, J. Johnson (copy at Univ of North Carolina, Greensboro) (also given as Walsh's Caledonian Country Dances, book iii. p. 36), and in Peter Thompson's Compleat Tutor for the Flute, c. 1750-54.

Miss Dawson, having made herself somewhat of a name at Sadler's Wells, in 1759 came to Covent Garden, and with this particular tune won great fame for herself and the air by dancing between the acts of The Beggar's Opera.

A song in eulogy of her was written and published in half-sheet music and in Thompson's Collection of Hornpipes, issued about this date, the air is called Miss Dawson's Hornpipe. At a later period Thompson published other airs used by Miss Dawson, under the titles Miss Dawson's New Hornpipe and Miss Dawson's Fancy, but none attained the popularity of the Hornpipe. The air was introduced as the housemaid's song into Love in a Village, 1762, and it is kept in memory to-day by several children's nursery tunes and 'ring games', chief among which is Here we go round the Mulberry Bush. The original song (not the shanty) Nancy Dawson begins:

Of all the girls in our town,
The red, the black, the fair, the brown,
That dance and prance it up and down,
There's none like Nancy Dawson. etc.

Goldsmith mentions Nancy Dawson in an epilogue intended to be spoken by Mrs. Bulkley:

Taught by our art her ridicule to pause on,
Quits the ballet, and calls for Nancy Dawson.

Very little is known of the personal history of Nancy Dawson - she is said to have been the wife of a publican at Kelso. She died May 27, 1767, and was buried in the churchyard of St George's-in-the-Fields. A verse from the song is said to have been cut on her tombstone, and to have been obliterated by order of the vicar. It is also said that Charles Wesley wrote a hymn to the air of Nancy Dawson, but we have never been able to find it and somehow it seems improbable unless the character of the song had been radically altered.

A well recognized version from Quebec, used on the lumber carriers, replaces "Nancy Dawson" with "Sally Rackett" - we have been unable to trace the history of this lady.


"The Holy Ground" is descended from "Sweet lovely Nancy" that can be traced back to at least 1680. (Ref: Stan Hugill, Roy Palmer, Vaughan Williams et al.) It became popular basically as an Irish emigrant song during the 19th Century, and was rarely used as a shanty. The song is set in Cobh (Queenstown), County Cork, Ireland, and is still very popular in that part of the country. The actual site "the Holy Ground" is on the East side of the town.

The song was sung in the fo'c'sle (therefore not a shanty), very occasionally at the windlass or capstan (Palmer), but as Hugill does not mention it, this must have been extremely rare and as he says: "It is now mainly heard in taprooms".

The Holy Ground is the name for a fishermen's quarter in Cobh, and by extension, for Ireland itself. The words "Swansea Town" crop up in English versions. A correspondent of Hugill noted that it "was always sung homeward bound in the little Welsh barks engaged in the copper ore trade in the (18)70's and 80's." There was also a "Campbelltown" version which was carried by Scots emigrants to North America, Australia and New Zealand.

The whaling shanty "Blow, Ye Winds" starts in one version:

'Tis advertised in Boston, New York, and Buffalo,
Now comes that damned old compass, it will grieve your heart full sore.
For theirs is two-and-thirty points and we have forty-four.

Miss Colcord's version (probably obtained from the Log book of the "Elizabeth Swift", 1859, in the New Bedford Public Library around the year 1920 - is the only version that contains the verse referring to the "forty four points" which have remained a mystery to all writers that I have come across on the subject (Colcord, Palmer, Sharp, Hugill, Harlow, Lloyd, Huntington, etc.) I have never been able to obtain an explanation in the nearly sixty years since I learned this shanty.

I have at least nine versions of this shanty. Miss Colcord's (which, by the way, she gives as a forebitter) has the rather bizarre distinction of containing more mathematical numbers than just about any shanty I have ever come across - not just the 44 (unique), but also 500, 400, 6, 1/2 (several times), 32, 50, and 190.

There are several versions that are specifically whalermen's songs (both American and British) and two other entirely separate themes (identical, or near identical, chorus), sung as capstan and pump shanties:

Cecil Sharp is the only collector who found a specifically Irish slant to the "mermaid" version: "...., I overheard an Irish girl a-singing this old tune".

The Colcord version is probably the first known written record, it is widely published, its authenticity has never been doubted, but again it is the only version to mention 44 points. If anyone could come up with an answer, one of the great mysteries of the shantyman could be laid to rest.

[1] Sir David William Bone (1874-1959): Began on windjammers in Australia in 1890, joined Anchor Line in 1899 where he ended as Commodore and retired in 1946. The records of his WWII services: Master of "Cameronia", "Circasia", landing ships, convoy duties, troop carrying. Involved in repatriation of Australian soldiers, former POW from Changhai, to Australia. [back]



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