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Music of the Sea: The Sea Chanty

The Sea Chanty


Sea chanties were songs sung by sailors and Marines in the days of sail by crews as they worked at heaving the lines or turning the capstan. The songs' rhythms caused everyone to push or pull simultaneously, hence causing a concerted effort and better results.

Some believe the term is a derivation of the French word "chanter" which means "to sing." Others maintain the spelling should be "shanties," claiming the name refers to the shanties along the Mobile, Ala. waterfront where many of the tunes were learned by sailors. Whatever the origin, chanties were divided into three distinct classes. Short-drag chanties, used when a few strong pulls were needed; long-drag chanties, longer songs to speed the work of long-haul jobs; and heaving chanties, used for jobs requiring continuous action such as turning the capstan.

One man, the chanty-man, stood high above the working crew and sang the main lines while the rest of the crew added their voices strongly on the second line. On the last word, a combined pull made the ropes "come home." A good chanty-man was highly prized by officers and crew alike. Although he had no official title or rate, he was usually relieved of all duties to compose new verses for sea chanties. In the years after the end of the War of 1812, the expansion of the vast American merchant fleet sailing to all points of the globe was accompanied by a flowering of this nautical music, alonside the traditional and evolving song traditions of the British naval and merchant sailors.

Sea Chanties and the U.S. Navy

In the 20th Century, the American Navy acknowledged its sea chanty heritage when the U.S. Navy Sea Chanters were organized in 1956 by the band's assistant leader, Lieutenant Harold Fultz, to perform at the State of the Nation dinner at the Statler hotel. The unit's original 16 members were actually instrumentalists from the Navy's School of Music, located in nearby Anacostia. An immediate success, this all-male chorus was given the named "Sea Chanters" by then-Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Arleigh Burke, and the ensemble was transferred to the Navy Band to perpetuate the musical tradition of the sea chantey, hearkening back to the era when the working songs were sung by sailors of the Navy's own fleet of tall ships. The unit remained an all-male chorus until 1980 when it welcomed its first female members and became a mixed chorus. Today the Sea Chanters chorus are the official chorus of the United States Navy a variety of music ranging from traditional choral music, including the sea chantey, to Broadway musicals.

Sea Chanties Today

The links below provide a broad spectrum of information about Sea Chanty practicioners, music and words for traditional and modern sea songs and sea chantys, and places where you can hear (and join in with) the singing of this music, a living legacy of the days of sail in which everyone can participate.

Sea Chanty Performers

sea chanters The Navy Band Sea Chanters is the United States Navy’s official chorus. The ensemble performs a variety of music ranging from traditional choral music, including sea chanteys and patriotic fare, to opera, Broadway, and contemporary music. The Sea Chanters are frequently found at the center of our most important national events, including Inauguration Day, 2009. Throughout their history, the Sea Chanters have remained true to the Navy's watchwords of pride and professionalism, and they continue to flourish as a vibrant ensemble.
logo uscga idlers The United States Coast Guard Academy Idlers were first formed in 1957 at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy as a cadet singing group that formed to perform in the academy's traditional "Musical Evening" annual talent show. Today The Idlers are a select group of 12 male singers chosen from the Corps of Cadets and the Cadet Glee Club by audition. The group specializes in the performance of sea chanteys and patriotic music. The Idlers travel annually to entertain people throughout the country, and have performed for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as for numerous Presidential Inaugurations. http://www.cgidlers.com/
logo ships company Ship's Company is a living history organization dedicated to the preservation of the American maritime heritage. The Ship's Company Chantymen sing the songs that America's sailors and Marines sang from the eighteenth to the 20th century.  The Chantymen are seen and heard all up and down the east coast of the United States, performing at living history events, music festivals, private parties and many other settings.  In the Washington, DC area, the Ship's Company Chantymen hold regular open pub sings at a number of locations; check the schedule on their web site for dates and places.
logo pyrates royale The Pyrates Royale since 1986 have been a top singing pirate act, performing throughout the United States. The award-winning ensemble combines music, comedy and a dash of history The group's fifth recording "Black Jack" earned a Best New CD title from the Renaissance Festival Podcast and the Pyrates Royale has been nominated for multiple "Wammie" awards by the Washington Area Music Association. The band has built a loyal following by connecting with audiences through the magic of music, laughter, and storytelling.
 logo ancient mariners The Ancient Mariners, Connecticut, Fife & Drum Corps were founded July 4, 1959 to portray the common sailor of 1812, bringing to life a vivid display of the colonial seaman through an enthusiastic rendition of period music. Built around the wood fife and the rope tension drum, the Mariners play and sing a variety of traditional music. From up tempo hornpipes and jigs to the work songs used aboard ship, the story of the ancient sailor is told through the haunting melodies of the chanties from the days of the square rigger.



 logo amsterdam port choir The Amsterdam Port Choir repertoire draws from three centuries of Old Dutch sailor.  Many songs were created at the time of the East India Company and were sung with heavy shipboard operations, such as hoisting the sails or the lights of the anchors, but also saying goodbye to loved ones.  The Amsterdam Port Choir sings not only shanties, the older work songs, but also modern, romantic and popular sea shanties. The choir also sings songs that are familiar to modern times.

Sea Chanty Information, Words and Music



logo wikipedia shanty page

The Sea Shanty page on Wikipedia is an encylopedic collection of sea chanty information and history, plus a large collection of links.


logo chantys work songs of the sea

Chanteys: Work Songs of the Sea -- This web site intends pass on some of the background information that makes chanteys more understandable, and therefore even richer and more enjoyable.




 logo issa

The Internationaal Shanty and Sea Songs Association (ISSA) is based in Delfzijl, The Netherlands. The ISSA's purpose is to preserve and extend the tradition of shanties and other maritime choir songs, and contribute to their further development through musical activities, publications and through the maintenance of interpersonal contacts between the generations. The organization is composed primarily of Europoean groups, with 14 countries represented.



logo shantys und seemannsliedership

The Shantys und Seemannslieder (Shanties and Sailor Songs) page features an enormous library of sea songs from the United States, England, Canada, Scotland, Germany, Holland, Ireland, and France.  The collection features lyrics and midi melody files for each song.



logo shanties and sea songs  The Shanties and Sea Songs web page, maintained by John Ward, features a large collection of lyrics for sea songs and shanties.



 logo shanties and sea songs rendance The Shanties & Sea Songs web page, started in 1993, is a place to share lyrics to traditional maritime songs, particularly sea shanties. It's also a place to find relevant books and CDs.



 logo sailor songs

The Sailor Songs web page, maintained by Roger Chartier, features sea shanty lyrics, history, CDs, and mp3 downloads.  Many lyric pages also feature guitar chords to the songs.



Sea Chanty Performance Venues



logo mystic seaport The Mystic Seaport Sea Music Festival has been for 33 years one of the world’s premier sea music events. Thousands of people gather each year to hear Mystic Seaport's Chantey Staff along with performers from around the globe carry on the classic musical traditions of the Golden Age of Sail. Featured music from maritime cultures around the world, including the United Kingdom, Italy, Portugal, Australia, Iceland, Poland, Netherlands, France, Canada and Africa, as well as native peoples within the United States, are showcased. The festival also features the Music of the Sea Symposium, a two-day program that explores the interaction between sea, music and song.



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