...'the sea shanty isn’t folk music'

(February 07, 2008)

“No, no the sea shanty isn’t folk music. It’s a distinct music drawn from the sea. It has little or nothing to do with folk music. Any more than the marching songs sung by soldiers have anything to do with folk music.”

Once I’d recovered from that burst of absolutism the remark made me think about the shanties and military songs in folk music. Before I continue I’ll tell you the above remark was in response to a question I asked at a local folk club. The question was: ‘Doesn’t that song remind you of the sea? It has more than a touch of the sea shanty about it.’

Isn’t it odd how sometimes a casual question prompts a strong reaction? Clearly there was a disconnect between what I meant and what he heard. So to answer my own question I considered the place (if any) of sea shanties or marching songs on folk music - all the time remembering that my intention is not to write a historical review of folk music. But then again it's hard to separate roots from branches.

And a shanty is ....

Shanties were about working in time and less about singing. It’s reasonable to suggest that a great proportion of the men involved in shanties had volume on their minds rather than musical quality. The emphasis on a syllable or word as sailors performed their work was usually shouted rather than sung - and none to tunefully at that. Of course shanties developed separate rhythms in line with the tempo needed for the various tasks aboard a sailing ship. This included tasks such as raising the anchor, lifting halyards, reefing sails and hauling ropes. Incidentally, many military songs served a similar purpose. They helped keep troops in step and raised their spirits. If songs (however badly sung or shouted) helped weary sailors or soldiers work or march in step with added vigour then why not let them sing?

Most shanties and many military songs involved a lead voice and a choral response from the men. Chorus is a grand word for the response but we’ll stick with chorus for this discussion. On ships the men used the words of the chorus to coincide with a heave, or pull. When all the men were working or pulling together it made the task easier. The men would rest during the verse and haul during the chorus. It’s no mean feat to raise an anchor, or haul up a spar even with the mechanical advantage of a capstan or pulley, so anything that made the job easier was good.

History lesson over - back to the songs ...

As well as capstan and halyard shanties, there are short drag shanties, windlass and pumping shanties, plus ceremonial shanties and forecastle songs.  

Consider forecastle songs for a moment, sometimes also known as ‘forebitters’.

These are songs that by definition tell tales to take mens minds off hardship, danger,  fear, being away from home or a tough life in general, either through humorous or wistful tales. They were and remain part of the classic storytelling folk song genre  – an accepted foundation of folk music.

These forecastle songs include tales of famous battles, notorious voyages, feared press gangs, revered captains, faithless or faithful lovers plus coming from or going to home. Themes even the most ardent folk landlubber can recognise.  Because sailors eventually come to a port and because of the interest in their narrative content, these songs steadily made it off the ships and on to the land. One reason there are so many folk songs about the sea and sailors.

The initial difference between the shanty and the forebitter was most shanties failed to tell anything resembling a coherent story. By tradition they were more likely a random collection of phrases hung together by the shanty man. They even included scraps of songs, views on politics, women and the ship’s captain - bolted together according to the length of shanty needed for the task involved. However, many shanties also made it ashore and those that did started to be sung for entertainment and more interestingly, started to tell ever more logical stories. The random selection of words began to find form. Also, once the shanty became entertainment and not just a working tool, harmonies that had never entered seafarer’s heads began to appear. Today there are fewer shanties sung for entertainment than forebitters but a great many folk songs can trace their heritage to the shanty.

It takes no time to run up a list of songs that began with sailors or soldiers. Today, most of those songs have lost contact with their roots and few singers take time to consider where those songs originated.  It’s also easy to make a list of modern folk songs that use those same roots for their lyrics and tunes. The name forebitter may have vanished from our language but the style remains in use - seated in both traditional and new folk.

So after a little thought the man who stated that shanties have no place in folk music was forced to admit that not only do they have a place in our folk tradition, they remain in our folk future. Great themes don’t die, they evolve and sometimes they grow  - even though they may not be in direct contact with their parents.

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