Sea Shanties, Chanties – History and Controversy

Pirate ship - photo by Gary RominSea shanties, sea chanties, pirates’ songs and sailors’ work tunes… their histories are as controversial as the modern-day role-playing and movie versions of piracy. In other words, the facts are difficult to establish, and I’m not sure our Talk Like a Pirate readers care, except as a matter of interest and trivia.

Were these real pirate songs?  I’m not sure, but the pirate era wasn’t so long ago.  Books about pirates were published during the Golden Age of Piracy.  Many of those records still exist.  So, I’m pretty certain at least some of today’s old pirate songs are authentic.

In our book, we define shanty and chanty as:

Songs sung by sailors, pirates, and men who worked at the wharves.

Shanties were labour songs sung by sailors of the merchant service only while at work, and never by way of recreation. Moreover — at least, in the nineteenth century — they were never used aboard men-o’-war, where all orders were carried out in silence to the pipe of the bo’sun’s whistle.” – from The Shanty Book, Part I, Sailor Shanties, by Richard Runciman Terry (1921)

In the sea shanties section of our book, we also explain:

Some historians maintain that authentic sea shanty (or shantie, chanty, chantie) is a single line, spontaneously made up and sung, followed by a chorus like the following:

‘Blow a man down is a blow me down trick.
Blow – Blow – Blow – a man Down.
Blow a man down to the home of old Nick.
Give me some time to blow a man down.’

That’s a song that was often adapted as a pirate drinking song. (Bawdy versions are still sung.)

This shanty was also made famous in a noted Penny & Sheldon moment, in the TV series, The Big Bang Theory.  Sheldon’s version was:

Give me some time to blow the man down.
I’m a deepwater sailor just come from Hong Kong.
Give me way, hey, blow the man down.
If you give me some whiskey I’ll sing you a song.
Give me some time to blow the man down.

Next, here’s a polished version of that sailors’ song. It’s one my mom used to play on the record player, at home.  This conveys the style of singing an improvised line, followed by the “Blow the man down” chorus.

For a rich, fairly authentic view of what sea shanties might have sounded like, the following video is excellent.

Do you want to pursue this subject of traditional pirate songs?  The roots of the controversy over the term “shanty” as a sailor’s or pirate’s song are murky. The following may be useful because it lists several references for the different spellings and meanings.  It’s a starting point.

The text is edited from the 1921 book, The Shanty Book, Part I, Sailor Shanties, by Richard Runciman Terry with Sir Walter Runciman. (Keep the era in mind.  Today, we probably wouldn’t phrase things the same way.)

Here let me enter my protest against the literary preciosity which derives the word from (un) chanté and spells it ‘chanty’ — in other words, against the gratuitous assumption that unlettered British sailors derived one of the commonest words in their vocabulary from a foreign source. The result of this ‘literary’ spelling is that ninety-nine landsmen out of every hundred — instead of pronouncing the word ‘shanty,’ rhyming with ‘scanty’ (as every sailor did) — pronounce it ‘tchahnty,’ rhyming with ‘auntie,’ thereby courting the amusement or contempt of every seaman.

The vogue of ‘chanty’ was apparently created by the late W.E. Henley, a fine poet, a great man of letters, a profound admirer of shanty tunes, but entirely unacquainted with nautical affairs. Kipling and other landsmen have given additional currency to the spelling. The ‘literary’ sailors, Clark Russell and Frank Bullen, have also spelt it ‘chanty,’ but their reason is obvious. The modest seaman always bowed before the landsman’s presumed superiority in ‘book-larnin’.’ What more natural than that Russell and Bullen, obsessed by so ancient a tradition, should accept uncritically the landsman’s spelling.

But educated sailors devoid of ‘literary’ pretensions have always written the word as it was pronounced. To my mind the strongest argument against the literary landsman’s derivation of the word is that the British sailor cultivated the supremest contempt for everything French, and would be the last person to label such a definitely British practice as shanty-singing with a French title. If there had been such a thing in French ships as a labour-song bearing such a far-fetched title as (un) chanté, there might have been a remote possibility of the British sailor adopting the French term in a spirit of sport or derision, but there is no evidence that any such practice, or any such term, achieved any vogue in French ships.

As a matter of fact, the Oxford Dictionary (which prints it ‘shanty’) states that the word never found its way into print until 1869.

The truth is that, however plausible the French derivation theory may sound, it is after all pure speculation — and a landsman’s speculation at that — unsupported by a shred of concrete evidence.

If I wished to advance another theory more plausible still, and equally unconvincing, I might urge that the word was derived from hut-removals already mentioned. Here, at least, we have a very ancient custom, which would be familiar to British seamen visiting West Indian seaports.

The object moved was a shanty; the music accompanying the operation was called, by the negroes, a shanty tune; its musical form (solo and chorus) was identical with the sailor shanty; the pulls on the rope followed the same method which obtained at sea; the soloist was called a shantyman; like the shantyman at sea he did no work, but merely extemporized verses to which the workers at the ropes supplied the chorus; and finally, the negroes still pronounce the word itself exactly as the seaman did.

I am quite aware of the flaws in the above argument, but at least it shows a manual labour act performed both afloat and ashore under precisely similar conditions as to (a) its nature, (b) its musical setting; called by the same name, with the same pronunciation in each case; and lastly, connected, in one case, with an actual hut or shanty. Against this concrete argument we have a landsman’s abstract speculation, which (a) begs the whole question, and (b) which was never heard of until a few years before the disappearance of the sailing ship. I do not assert that this derivation is conclusive, but that from (un) chanté will not bear serious inspection.