Shanties and Sea Songs

      Sea Shanties were basically the work songs that were used during the time of the great sailing ships. The Golden Age of the shanties was in the mid-nineteenth century. Their rhythms coordinated the efforts of many sailors hauling on lines. They are rarely used as work songs today. Now they are mainly used by singing groups. In Lord Nelson's Navy shanties were banned, and the work was accompanied instead by calling out numbers or the rhythmic playing of a fiddle or fife. The word shanty or chanty may be derived from the French word chanter which means to sing. They were not originally in the musical form we find them today, but chanted, with emphasis on a syllable or word as sailors performed their work. The chanter or shantyman calling out words and the men calling out the chorus in rhythm to their work. The words of the chorus usually coincided with a heave, or pull. Just like a good drill sergeant today can make a march more bearable with the proper use of a song. So to could the shantyman aboard ship help to lighten the effort and ease the boredom of repetitive work. Shanties developed separate rhythms for the various chores at sea such as for raising the anchor, hauling ropes, etc.

      Shanties could also help provide a way for sailors to express themselves without much fear of punishment. Basically, there are two kinds of shanties. First are the work shanties: the short drag, short haul, halyard, windlass, or capstan. Second are the forebitter, forecastle or fo'castle shanties. These generally are the ballads or tell of some historical event. They get there name from the part of the ship where the singing usually took place: the forecastle, which was the crew's quarters. The ballads typically describe the hardships of life aboard the tallships, about the harsh treatment by their superiors, the good or bad properties of the ship or about the sailors ties with the shore. Some of these ballads started out as working songs by landlubbers like woodcutters, railway and farm workers, blacksmiths, and golddiggers. Still others were sung by slaves loading and unloading cargo. Toward the end of the 19th century, when steam and diesel powered ships entered service and began to replace more and more of the great ships of sail. the use of shanties and the job of the shantymen began to rapidly decline.

      Below is a clickable list to a few of the more popular songs and lyrics that are sung by modern performers. They represent only a fraction of the many shanties and sea songs. Some of these songs below were used during that era, and others are modern creations. I have compiled this list to give you a sense of what the songs were like and a feel for that period in time. The lyrics used are not 'set in stone'. In some cases I have tried to use non-offensive versions for this site, as these old songs could at times be vulgar, and would not be accepted by todays childish censorship standards. The shanteymen themselves would often adapt a songs lyrics based on the task required to be done. The verses could be sung in any order or words altered, added or deleted. Some songs below include a brief bit of information about the tune, and I have added an audio version where possible. The music on this website was designed to be heard with one of the following "up to date" internet browsers: Microsoft Edge, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, Chrome, or Safari. If you like what you hear, support these artists by purchasing their CD's or Tunes, and listen to more of their music. It is unclear if pirates in the golden age of piracy (1650s to 1730), made much use of work type shanties. But some crews probably did sing the forecastle ballads, and sea songs that were popular in their own time for pleasure.


All For Me Grog

Barrett's Privateers

The Black Ball Line

Blow the Man Down

Blow Ye Winds

The Bold Princess Royal

Bonnie Ship the Diamond

Bound for the Rio Grande

Bully in the Alley

Ballad of Captain Kidd

Coasts of High Barbary

The Dead Horse

The Derelict

Drunken Sailor

Eliza Lee

Fire Marengo

Fish in the Sea

Go to Sea No More

Hanging Johnny

Haul Away, Joe

Haul, Boys, Haul

Haul on the Bowline

Holy Ground Once More

Homeward Bound

Hullabaloo Belay

Leave Her, Johnny

Maggie May

Maid of Amsterdam

Mrs McGraw

Nelson's Blood

Old Billy Riley

Old Swansea Town

Paddy, Lay Back

The Pirate Song

The Plains of Mexico

Pump Her Dry

Randy Dandy O

Roll Boys Roll

Roll Me Hearties

Rolling Down to Old Maui

Running Down to Cuba

Sally Brown

South Australia

Spanish Ladies

Storm Along

Ten Thousand Miles Away

Ward the Pirate

Where am I To Go

Whiskey O

Whup Jamboree

Worst Old Ship

Types of Shanties

    Capstan shanties were used for long repetitive tasks, that simply need a sustained rhythm. Raising or lowering the anchor while winding up the heavy anchor chain was their prime use. This winding was done by pushing round and round at the capstan bars, which required a long and continuous effort. These are the most devloped of the work shanties. Capstan shanties had steady rhythms and usually told stories because of the length of time (which could be hours) it took to raise the anchor. Sailors would stamp on the deck on the words. This gave rise to the term, "stamp and go chanties."

    Halyard (or Long Drag) shanties were sung to the raising and lowering of sails. Sails hung from wooden cross-pieces called yards. With the canvas and wood, sails could weigh between 1,000 and 2,500 pounds. To set sail a member of the crew would climb the rigging to loosen the canvas. On deck the crew would take hold of a line called the halyard (for haul + yard). The crew would rest during the verse and haul during the chorus. Depending on the weight of the sail, crews could pull one (for heavy jobs) to three (for lighter jobs) times per chorus.

    Short drag (or short haul) shanties were for tasks requiring quick pulls over a relatively short time, such as shortening or unfurling sails, and raising the masthead.

    Sailors would pump handles up and down, making the barrel of the windlass rotate to bring the anchor chain up. Pumps were fitting in ships to empty the bilge (the lowest part of the ship) of water. Wooden ships leaked, but not so fast that the crew could not pump the water out. There were several different types of pumps, which accounts for the variation in the timing of pumping shanties.

    Ceremonial and forecastle or forebitter (the crews quarters) songs were those sung by sailors on their time off in the evening, when the work was done. These generally are the ballads or told stories of famous men, battles, romance, of their longing for home or just plain funny songs. Singing was a favored method of relaxation aboard ship. Ceremonial shanties were for times of celebration, such as when the sailor paid off his debt to the ship or when they crossed the equator.

Pirate and Nautical Musical Groups

* Alestorm - Homepage for this Scottish pirate metal band.

* The Ancient Mariners - Fife and drum corps with a nautical theme.

* Baggyrinkle: Swansea Shantymen - Group sings a mixture of shanties and maritime songs.

* Banana Boat - A Polish 6-man singing group.

* The Bilge Pumps - Pirate music group that specialize in sea songs, shanties, and celtic tunes.

* Blakeney Old Wild Rovers - Norfolk, UK group sings mostly sea shanties.

* Bounding Main - A costumed vocal group that sings harmonic versions of traditional maritime songs.

* The Brigands - This pirate themed musical group performs sea songs and shanties.

* Capt'n Black's Sea Dogs - Springfield Mo group. with unique Folk/Rock sound.

* Clam Chowder - Homepage for this retired shanty group.

* The Crimson Pirates - Mix of shanties/sailing songs, also Irish drinking songs.

* Cztery Refy - This Poland based group performs traditional sea songs.

* The Dreadnoughts - Folk/Celtic-punk band from Vancouver .

* EKT-Gdynia - A popular Polish shanty group.

* Exmouth Shanty Men - Devon's original buoy band, sings shanties and sailing songs.

* Falmouth Shout Shanty Singers - Sing Sea Shanties, Songs of the Sea and Cornish Songs.

* The Fisherman's Friends - A shanty group based in North Cornwall.

* The Fishwives Band - Group sings sea shanties and songs of the sea.

* Flash Jack - Performs Sea Songs and Shanties.

* Hanging Johnny - UK group that performs shanties and sea songs.

* The Irish Rovers - Classic folk band has been a favorite for decades.

* The Johnson Girls - This all girl east coast group performs sea songs.

* The Jolly Rogers - Pirate-themed renaissance group, performs sea shanties and humorous songs.

* The Jolly Rogues - Sing sea shanties and nautical tunes.

* Jolly Shore Leave - Maritime duo playing original folk rock.

* The Jurassix - Group sings sea shanties and songs of the sea.

* Tom Kastle - Singer and tall ship sailor. Contributor to Pirates Magazine.

* Kimber"s Men - UK based shanty group.

* Kraken Shanty Band - A Swedish shanty group.

* The Longest Johns - Group from Bristol, England, known for performing folk music and sea shanties.

* The Lost Quays - Vocal group based in the port of Fremantle, Western Australia.

* The Maritime Crew - Sings shanty and nautical songs.

* Monkeys Fist - Folk band sings sea shanties, forebitters and songs of the sea.

* The Musical Blades - A comedy/song/swordplay traveling pirate show.

* Nelson's Shantymen - A non-profit Shanty group which aims to raise money for charitable causes.

* Pirates For Sail - Sings mainly shanty, sea & drinking songs, based in Maryland.

* The Pride of Bedlam - Pirate music band based in Houston, TX

* Pyrates - Folk rock pirate band from the Netherlands.

* The Rogue Shanty Buoys - A UK shanty/folk group.

* Rum and Shrub Shantymen - UK group performs shanties, maritime and folk songs.

* Rusty Cutlass - Florida band performs Shanties/Pirate/Traditional Irish/Tavern songs.

* The Salts - Folk rock band performs sea shanties.

* Salty Walt & The Rattlin' Ratlines - San Francisco sea shanty and sea song group.

* The Seadogs - California group performs nautical music, with comedy and theatrics.

* She Shanties - Female vocal shanty group.

* The Sheringham Shantymen - A UK shanty group.

* The Shifty Sailors - Whidbey Island, based sea shanty and maritime music group.

* Ship's Company: Chanteymen - US east coast performers.

* Shipwreck Rats - Pirate speed folk band based in Berlin.

* Skullduggers - Facebook page for this pirate band.

* Stamp And Go - UK group sing Sea Shanties, Songs of the Sea and Cornish Songs.

* Storm Weather Shanty Choir - Group based in Stord, Norway

* Tom Mason & the Blue Buccaneers - Band based in Nashville, TN.

* Trim Rig and a Doxy - UK shanty duo.

* Wellington Sea Shanty Society - New Zealand shanty group sings traditional sea songs.

* The Wellington Wailers - Shanty group based in Shoreham-by-sea west Sussex.

* William Pint and Felicia Dale - Music of the sea.

* The Woods Tea Company - Based in Vermont, US. Perform shanties, folk, Celtic and Irish tunes.

* Ye Banished Privateers - Perform both sea and folk tunes.

Documentary: British Shanties and Sea Songs

Page best viewed with a 1080px width.

Copyright 2000-2024 Brethren of the Coast, All Rights Reserved.