Nineteenth-century Sea Shanties

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  • #2919
    Malcolm Lewis
    Participant

    Kelby Rose’s most interesting and entertaining article in The Mariner’s Mirror 98:2 May 2012, about the culture surrounding shanties in the 19th century merchant marine is a valuable contribution to maritime history.
    Shanties were an important ‘engine’ for motivating seamen in the harsh conditions of deep sea voyaging. Kelby makes no reference to naval vessels. I had been led to believe that shanties were not permitted in R.N. vessels, certainly in the 18-19th centuries, although I am not sure why. Was it thought that perhaps critical wording regarding certain superiors in many of the shanties might have encouraged indiscipline?
    Naval seamen, many of whom had served in merchant vessels, experienced the same hardships as those in trading vessels. Indeed death in battle would have been a higher risk than normal seafaring for a merchant seaman.
    Music we are told did play a part in a naval sailor’s life, such as theatricals, which passed the time away on distant postings. Maybe with the introduction of steam power in the 19th century the need for musical encouragement lessened although there was a resistance on the part of senior naval officers to mechanising the seamanship operations onboard. HMS Warrior (1860), for example, did not use steam power to weigh anchor as the ‘management’ believed the crew of some 700 needed physical effort to occupy them (and keep them out of trouble).
    I would be interested to hear from anyone who has knowledge of any part played by shanties in the British or other navies over the centuries.
    Malcolm Lewis

    #2920
    Frank Scott
    Participant

    True Shanties were work songs, designed to help a small work force ‘pull together’. Clearly there was no need for this in a warship, any of which would be greatly over-manned by commercial standards. Indeed with large numbers of people to control, and many actions taking place at the same time, the ideal in a naval vessel was total silence, except for essential commands. It was this quiet order which so impressed Napoleon onboard HMS Bellerophon after his surrender.
    Moreover, work shanties do not work properly when you have plenty of people. This is something that the legendary Stan Hugill had to admit when he tried to demonstrate shanties in their proper context while filming in Sørlandet in 1980 (personal knowledge).
    In naval ships the dog watches were a traditional time for singing, indeed ‘hands to dance and skylark’ was a common order that had its origin in the era when medical opinion often mistook [one of] the symptoms of scurvy for its cause, and it was believed that sailors were naturally lazy and needed more exercise.
    Shanties sung on such occasions would be forebitters rather than work songs, but those brought up on modern festival singing would probably not notice the difference in cadence.
    Although it is well known that shanties in merchant ships were often adapted to reveal grievances, in the Royal Navy there is a long history of allowing the crew to let off steam – crossing-the-line ceremonies for example – so it would not be surprising if the mild adaptions occurred despite the formal discipline, even in the 19th century.
    Moving into the 20th century, Cyril Tawney, who became a well-known folk-singer, not only wrote many songs during his time in the service (1946-59), but published a good collection of naval songs in Grey Funnel Lines: traditional song & verse of the Royal Navy 1900-1970, Routledge & Kegan Paul (1970). Shep Wooley, who followed him in the 1960s and 1970s, was considerably more edgy, and has many songs on disc. Interestingly both of them were engineers – Tawney a Chief ‘Tiff, and Wooley a PO ‘Stoker’. Their songs were very popular in the navy.
    Frank Scott

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