An Anatomy of a Shanty Sing

by on 10/02/11 at 7:32 pm

Sorry it’s been a while since I posted, happy New Year to all.  Thought this time I’d touch on the subject of shanty sings. We’ve several around here, and as the practice of shanty singing is somewhat obscure nowadays, I’ll take you along to a local shanty sing here in Seattle.

So what is a shanty anyway? Mostly they were the work songs sung to help sailors as they did various tasks on sailing ships going back to about the 16th century. “The rhythm of the song served to synchronize the movements of the sailors as they toiled at repetitive tasks. They also served a social purpose: singing and listening to songs is pleasant; it alleviates boredom and lightens the burden of hard work, of which there was no shortage on long voyages in those days” (Wikipedia).  There were several kinds of shanties, namely “halyard” or long hauling songs, short haul or “sheet” songs, “capstan”, “stamp n’go”, pumping and fo’c’s’le to name a few. There is a great explanation at Wikipedia here.

I first came across shanties through the books of Arthur Ransom as a kid. There were however, no shanties for dingy sailors (that I knew of), so I had to wait ‘til I came over to the states and hung out on the Wawona, at Folklife and other such places to begin to learn and then sing them.   Most of us don’t have to haul on a large capstan and a shanty is not required to haul up the main or the jib on most of our boats. Indeed, most maritime singers I know don’t own boats, but just love the music and want to keep it alive. 
If you happen to be fortunate to sail on the Lady Washington, the Adventuress and sundry other local tall ships, you’ll find that the tradition continues, out of necessity and also for fun; they still have to haul lines and other stuff up and down just like the old days.  In a town that does not eschew heritage, and tends to worship progress, folks like Northwest Seaport keep the tradition alive. Once a month, they hold a shanty sing at various locations, preferably on a boat, such as the Virginia V, or nowadays, wherever they can find a safe haven to sing in. Back in the day, the best time was to be had on the Wawona…you really got a sense of what it was like hauling things around, although most of what I hauled around was sound equipment…I’ve been meaning to write a shanty for hauling sound gear one of these days (sigh).

Shanty Sing on the Virginia V
So you show up one evening at 8pm on a Friday night at the Virginia V and you’ll be met with all sorts of folks from all walks of life. Folks are wandering in, some with books of tunes to share, and some with instruments. The upper deck is full. The crew of the Virginia V are greeting folks and being very hospitable. Alice is presiding over the maritime music store, arguably the best selection of maritime music you’ll find in one place. The refreshment table is in full swing, and at 8 o’clock, Wayne Palsson starts off promptly with a quick song in his great operatic voice and large maritime repertoire and then explains that anyone can lead a song, and that if you can hear your neighbour, you are not singing loud enough! After leading an introductory song, he introduces the guest shanty singer(s) and off we go. The guest leads one or two and then folks chime in with songs, and we all join in (lustily). As the last chord from the song rings in the air, maybe you’ll begin to understand the sheer fun and importance of this living legacy we’ve been left. Maybe our friend Marek from Poland regales us with a Polish version of a shanty. He showed up a while back and has a great passion for Polish shanties.   It seems that the Poles are very enthusiastic about them, and he brings a fascinating twist to the genre.  There will be sad songs, story songs, funny songs, rousing songs, and many sung by folks that may never sing in public anywhere else, but here we don’t care if you carry a tune, just go for it. The freedom to sing lustily and sometimes out tune brings out the best in all of us and is a great equaliser.
What makes all this work is the very essence of the shanty itself; a simple repeatable chorus such as this:
Oh, help me Bob, I’m bully in the alley.
Way hey! Bully in the alley!
Help me Bob, I’m bully in the alley,
Bully down in shin bone all.

For seven long years I courted Sally.
Way hey! Bully in the alley
All she did was dilly dally

Traditional – the song explains about being dead blind drunk (bully) in an alley (shin bone all).

Even those of us with terrible short term memory can sing the (bolded) chorus parts, and to hear many voices and of course lots of harmony and then that last chord ringing as the song ends is nothing short of wonderful. And what a sense of community when you are singing (lustily) with a bunch of folks continuing a practice that goes back centuries, and learning and carrying forward the stories and songs of an age long gone in a seafaring town such as Seattle. We’ve also a great bunch of artists to draw from here. Philip Morgan, Dan Roberts, Tugboat Bromberg, Wayne Palsson, Chris Roe, Mariide, The Whateverly Brothers, Pint and Dale, John Sparrow, Broadside and many more provide great music and song leading at these gatherings.  These events have become well attended. We’ve seen 50 to 80 folks show up at these, young and old alike. While there is a ribald part of this genre, you’ll not find it at these events.

We’ll have a break, and then at 10 pm or so the last chord sounds and folks pack up the chairs and head home, or off to hang out more and sing more and have a beverage with that shanty…

So there you have it. Do come down and join us one of these days. You don’t have to sing if you don’t want to but you’ll find yourself joining in despite yourself!  Here’s a clip from the Januuary Seaport Shanty Sing on the Virginia V.  Not trained voices, not a choir, but  80 or so people having a great time.

January Shanty  Sing Snippets

There are other places about the sound where you can join in and the listings are below.

‘Til next time, Chris.

The Northwest Seaport Shanty Sing is always on the second Friday of the month at various locations:  Info at

 Shanty Sings in Olympia: Details here

Shanty Sings in Port Townsend,  Third Saturday at the Courtyard Cafe 5:30pm to 8:30pm

One Response to “An Anatomy of a Shanty Sing”

  1. foakleys

    Apr 11th, 2013

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