The Ballina Whalers

The sea shanty – past, present and future.

The Ballina Whalers are an a’capella folk trio consisting of Pete Truin, Jamie Doe and Sam Brookes – three musical barnacles clinging to the creaking hull of a musical tradition stretching back over hundreds of years. Using just their voices they  explore ballads, shanties and seafaring songs that tell tales of whaling ships, lost loves, roaring storms and hardship out at sea. Here, Pete Truin – who archives his shanties on The Rattling Blog – looks back at the origins of the sea shanty before contemplating its  future.

Much more than just an island nation, the UK is a nation of islands; an archipelago experiencing some of the biggest tides on the planet, and battered consistently by North Atlantic weather systems, as well as by fierce North Sea winter storms. It is small wonder then that these islands have produced, and continue to produce, more first rate mariners than it is possible to mention. With the sacrifice of her great Oak Forests, England was able to float a Navy that conquered the world’s oceans, and along with France, Holland, The Americas, Scandinavia and many other countries, England initiated the ferrying of cargoes over vast distances, a legacy of international trade and globalisation that still effects the way we live to this day.

It is of interest to note the extent to which salt water runs in the veins of British culture. When composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams set out from London to collect folk songs in the early 1900s it was common to find songs relating to maritime life in villages vast distances inland, where travel to the coast would have been an impractical and unaffordable luxury. Many of these songs deal with the hardships of life at sea or the grief of those left behind, as well as the injustices committed by the naval press-gangs, and the sinking or successes of ships of renown.

What then of the Shanty, or working song of the sailor? It seems likely that their first use was in China, where rhythmic chants may have been used to coordinate the work of handling the ocean-going junk-rigged vessels during the Song dynasty as early as the 2nd Century AD. These seaworthy vessels with sails, which could be reefed to make them smaller in heavy weather, enabled sailors of the Han dynasty to transport up to 700 people and 260 tons of cargo. It is well documented that in the 1400s, several trading armadas set out consisting of nine-masted ships alleged to be over 400-feet long, crewed by tens of thousands of men. These vessels travelled over vast distances long before European kingdoms made similar imperialistic voyages of discovery, and would appear to be the largest wooden ships ever built; the archaeological evidence may be scarce, but the idea is tantalising nonetheless!

Turning to Europe, it seems probable that rowing songs were in use both on the slave galleys of the Greeks and Romans, and the far-roaming craft of the Vikings. But for the origin of the sailor’s shanty, as we know and love it today, we need look no further than the writings of the late great Stan Hugill, sailor, sail trainer, shantyman, and raconteur. Of the men who have devoted their lives to the collecting of sea-songs from the Golden Age of Sail, few have come close to matching his stature as a researcher of shanties and shantying. In his most famous work, Shanties from the Seven Seas he refers to a manuscript which details the passage of a ship in 1400 carrying pilgrims to the shrine of James of Compostella. While hoisting sail, the sailors cry, “Y-how! Taylia,” which Hugill translates in modern terms as, “Haul away! Hoist her up!” There are many examples like these to be found in early literature, of both shouts or “sing-outs” and actual songs, although no melodies were collected until much later. There is evidence, however, of traditional dance tunes such as ‘Drops of Brandy’ (which is still in circulation today) being used by fife players and fiddlers in naval ships during the late 1700s and early 1800s.

However, as singing was banned in naval ships, it was in the merchant ships after the Napoleonic wars and during the long peace between 1815 and 1870 that the shanties flourished. Ships were carrying smaller crews, and running tighter schedules, and so the use of work songs onboard ship came to the fore. The work of these ships being varied, different songs evolved for the various tasks undertaken onboard, and the skill of the shantyman was to understand the pace of the work and match his song to it. Songs used for heaving at the pump handles, or the bars of the capstan (the ship’s main winch) generally consist of a call-and-response verse, followed by a grand chorus where all hands would sing together. Pumping shanties in particular might be used for many hours in bad weather, and frequently the shantyman was called upon to improvise verses until the job was done. Songs used for the hauling of ropes vary in rhythm depending on the speed and length of the haul to be done, leaving a complex legacy of disputed types of shanty, often with different ships using different songs for different jobs; far too tricky a knot to untangle here!

The cultural strands that influenced the melodies and content of the songs are easier to discern however. During this period of history, it has been said that there was an Irishman onboard every sailing ship of every nation and there can be no doubt that the prevailing folk song and ballad tradition in Western Europe gave rise to shanties with distinct narrative verses, often warning the sailors of the perils of venereal disease or unscrupulous landlords! It was fairly common during this time for ships to sail with segregated watches; so called “checkerboard crews”.

The influence of African-American and West Indian work songs within the shantying tradition is profound, with many songs being closely related to plantation and railroad work songs in their structure, and many West Indian shantymen, such as Harry Lauder, being revered as excellent seamen and singers long after their passing. In the southern states of the USA, many European sailors rubbed shoulders and swapped songs with the dock workers loading their ships, when the hard work of screwing cotton bales down in the hold of the ships required both songs to haul the lifting tackle, and heaving songs to turn the heavy screws. Unlike the more narrative songs of the Liverpool-Irish tradition, the words of West Indian shanties were often improvised and interchangeable. Needless to say, much of the content of many sailors’ songs was ribald, racist or misogynistic (frequently all three!) and consequently never found its way into print during Victorian times because of social scruples, and in modern times through sensitivity to political correctness. Many of the songs had “clean” versions that were sung when passengers were on board, but it is not difficult to imagine the direction in which imaginations of men who had been at sea for many months ran.

What then of the future of the shanty? The Liverpool-Irish tradition stands strong, and many a nostalgic nautical song has been written since shanties were used in earnest on board the tall ships. Sailors’ recognised ability to “spin a yarn” no doubt contributed much to the way this maritime culture has been mythologised, and our inexorable fascination with the mystery of the ocean seems to show no signs of diminishing. A large part of the beauty of this music lies in its crystallisation of a very short period of human history and as a clear example of significant and far-reaching cultural exchange, in a social context where men of often vastly different backgrounds and circumstances depended upon each other, and a fair amount of luck, for their day-to-day survival. The songs have evolved dramatically from the days when sailors (being superstitious to a high degree) would only sing the songs when working, having a separate canon of songs (referred to as forebitters) when below deck, and they continue to inspire musicians of many nations.

Access to and interest in preserving folk cultures is increasing rapidly, and shanties such as the perennial Donkey Riding continue to be taught in primary schools. It can only be hoped that funding continues to be found to support what was until recently a flourishing international festival scene in Europe and North America. In these days of busy shipping lanes and tight passage schedules, it is common for the remaining sail-training ships to have Diesel engines and powered winches, and the heavy labour of raising the anchor is no longer done by hand. In fact, as has been observed by Master Mariner and Sail Trainer Daniel Moreland, Captain of the Picton-Castle, more men have walked on the moon in recent times than have commanded a vessel in circumnavigating the globe the ‘old fashioned way’. However, with the advent of rising oil prices, and with crew willing to pay for the experience of blue-water sailing it seems inevitable that we will see a new rise in the transfer of non-perishable cargo by sailing ships, and the cry, “All hands on deck. All hands a-haul,” may once more be raised in anger in the teeth of a rising North Atlantic gale!

The Ballina Whalers debut EP, ‘Lowlands’ is released on December 7, 2012, in the UK at a  gig hosted by the Nest Collective at Chat’s Palace in Hackney, London.


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