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Sea chanteys, sometimes spelled as shanties, are chanting work songs which were traditionally sung on board ships. Used to keep sailors working as a team together, many sea chanteys also incorporate notoriously foul language and inappropriate topics. Songs to coordinate workers have been used for centuries, and sea chanteys were heard on most large ships until the early twentieth century. Heritage organizations aimed at preserving maritime history have written down and recorded traditional sea chanteys for future generations to hear, and some land-based choirs specialize in sea chanteys, for people interested in hearing live performances.
The term “sea chantey” probably originates from the French chanter, which means “to sing.” The root can also be seen in the English word “chant,” which is also an accurate description of a sea chantey. Most sea chanteys use a call and response style, with a single individual calling and the rest of the crew responding. The rhythmic music helped to keep sailors focused and in time together, allowing them to quickly accomplish physically challenging tasks.
Before the mechanization of ships, all tasks needed to be carried out by hand from the raising of the sails to rowing becalmed ships. Many of these tasks required the coordinated effort of multiple individuals to be accomplished, and the work would be most effective if everybody acted in unison. The chantey foreman would chant out the calls and the sailors would respond while rowing in one direction, pulling on a rope together, or performing a variety of other concerted duties.
Many popular songs such as “What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor” are sea chanteys. Different chanteys were designed for different tasks, all of which required different rhythms. Capstan shanties were used when sailors needed to raise or lower sails by walking around the capstan, while halyard chanteys were used by sailors when they needed to pull on the yards of the ship to which the sails are attached. Short haul sea chanteys were reserved for tasks where the labor would be brief, but extremely difficult, while pumping chanteys were sung by sailors working in concert to pump or drain the bilges of the ship. Sailors also had ceremonial songs for special occasions like entering harbor or crossing the equator.
Thanks to the work of cultural organizations and mariners who are preserving sea chanteys, landlubbers can still listen to them in public performance, on recordings, or on board traditional tall ships. The songs are very easy to learn and the temptation to make up new verses can be irresistible, and sea chanteys are also adaptable for land based work tasks. In addition to traditional lewd chanteys, there are also a number of more tame songs which are appropriate for people with more delicate sensibilities.
It was probably sung on keelboats in the early 19th century, but "Shenandoah" has to be one of the most beautiful of the sea chanteys. It's still one of the most popular folk songs in the American tradition, and one of the few that's probably truly, fully American, and not borrowed from another chantey.
Cowboy songs also doubtless came from the sea chantey. They were designed to pass the time, as well as to help calm a restless cattle herd during the night on a cattle drive. They also tend to be rhythmic and easily learned and sung.
A modern version of the sea chantey is the cadence songs soldiers sing while marching. One starts, "Airborne, Airborne, have you heard? We're going to jump from a big iron bird." And it continues from there. The cadence songs help the platoon stay in step and also passes the time as you march.
Some of the cadence songs are pretty bawdy, too. You can see some examples in "An Officer and a Gentleman" and in "Full Metal Jacket." These are fairly typical of the ones you hear in the military. The ones we did while learning to march in JROTC in high school were considerably more family friendly.
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