The Rich Maritime History of Sea Shanties

Published february 7, 2024 | |Written by emily cough | Edited by bhhs staff

The recent inclement and raging weather that’s been plaguing our island recently reminds us of a bygone era of an enduring maritime history. 

As the rhythmic sounds of waves crash against the rocky shores of MDI, they harmonize with the echoes of centuries-old maritime traditions, of traditional work songs known as shanties. 

Sea shanties, also known simply as shanties or chanties, are traditional work songs that were sung by sailors and laborers on ships. These songs served various purposes, from coordinating tasks to providing entertainment and boosting morale. The origins of “the word shanty…turns up in the 1850s… No one initially called them ‘SEA shanties,’ which would have been unnecessary: only seagoing work songs, it seems, were called ‘shanties’ back then” (Winick 2021). 

Possible etymology of the word seems to point towards the French word for sing, chanter. The “ch” in the French chanter, pronounced as “sh,” could’ve lent a hand to the term. Others theorize it came from the English word “chant,” but that again has French origins (Royal Museums Greenwich, n.d.). 

The practice of call and response songs, like shanties, are derived from Africa. “Through sacred rituals [and] spiritually-tinged conversations,” this pattern of dialect evolved and “[penetrated] almost every sub-Saharan African tribe, nation, [and] ethnic group” (Keegan 2005). Once the African slave trade was established, call and response songs and language took on a “survivalist tone” to help bring a “consistency to fieldwork” (Keegan 2005). Eventually, through maritime trade and travel, the sub-African call and response traditions made its way to nearly all corners of the world. 

As for shanties, there were earlier iterations of these songs, “[lying] between 1550 and 1750” (Saunders 1928). However, the quintessential sea shanties as we know them, the stereotypical sounds of “’heave ho!…Yo, heave, hearty, ho’,” were heard as early as 1834 (Dana 1834). Managing ships in this era required a lot of hard work and coordination, especially for pulling a rope or lever in synchronization, so “shanties were used to coordinate these moves and improve the efficiency of the work” (Winick 2021). 

Shanties weren’t just a blanket term for these kinds of seafaring songs. In fact, there were subcategories to distinguish them from different jobs or tasks on ships. 

The first was known as capstan songs, named after the capstan winch device on ships, that were used to move, or “heave” heavy weights via ropes or chains. To move synchronistically, these heaving capstan songs were used by the sailors. They had a distinctive rhythmic pattern, often with a call-and-response structure. 

The second kind of shanty is a short drag or a short haul shanty. These were sung by sailors during shorter and less physically demanding tasks aboard a ship. These shanties were typically shorter in duration and had a brisker tempo compared to other shanty types and were used for activities that required less coordinated effort, such as hauling in lines or ropes over shorter distances. They were characterized by their quick and repetitive rhythms, making the work more efficient and synchronized. 

The short haul’s counterpart, the long haul, was sung by seamen during longer and more physically demanding tasks aboard a ship. These shanties were used for activities that required sustained effort over an extended period, such as hoisting or lowering sails, hauling heavy loads, or performing continuous work on board. Long haul shanties typically have a slower tempo and more extended verses compared to other shanty types.

The fourth shanty, a pumping shanty, is a type of sea shanty sailors sang while operating the ship’s pumps. The pumps were used to remove water that had accumulated in the bilge (the lowest part of the ship’s hull), preventing the ship from sinking. The pumping shanty’s lyrics often contained themes related to the toil and endurance required for this task, helping sailors maintain their stamina and focus during the challenging work of keeping the ship dry.

The fifth shanty is known as whaling shanties. These shanties were sung by whalers during their arduous and often dangerous hunts for whales in the 19th century. Whaling shanties were used to coordinate various tasks involved in whaling operations, such as rowing in small boats, harpooning, and processing the harvested whales.

The final shanty type is a forebitters shanty. This shanty was sung by sailors during their leisure time, often during breaks or rest periods on board a ship. Unlike work-related shanties used for tasks like hauling ropes or raising sails, forebitters were typically slower and more lyrical songs. They were sung for relaxation and entertainment, rather than for coordinating labor (“Types of Shanties,” n.d.).

As seamen sailed their way to all corners of the earth with their songs, eventually, they landed here in Bar Harbor. 

This town is deeply rooted in maritime heritage, with its history closely tied to the sea. Fishing and maritime trade play significant roles in our town’s development, as Bar Harbor is known for its lobster fishing industry. As such, sea shanties were often used in the past by fishermen to coordinate their work and pass the time during long hours at sea.

Just shy of three years ago, Bennett Konesni, a long-time student of work songs on both land and sea, led a sing-a-long sea shanty Zoom call put on by BHHS. He was joined by Gray Cox, a professor at the College of the Atlantic and a host of other guests, each sharing their stories associated with these maritime songs. 

Thanks to Bennett and Gray, we were proud to give further voice and to document this rich tradition that’s often passed down orally. 

And more recently, this past season we introduced our Working Waterfront exhibit in our annexed building, to further the voice of hard working sailors and seamen who’ve drastically played a role in the development of Bar Harbor. 

We invite you to join us on May 28th, when we open our doors for the 2024 season, to learn about the rich culture Bar Harbor’s history offers, including our maritime traditions. Until then, we’d love to have you join us as a Member! Scroll up and head to “Support” and click on “Join” or “Donate” to help us keep history alive! See you soon!

Reference List

Dana, Richard H. 1840. Two Years Before the Mast : A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea. http://ci.nii.ac.jp/ncid/BA41826377.

Keegan, Nathan. 2005. “Call-and-Response: An Ancient Linguistic Device Surfaces in Usher’s ‘Love in This Club.’” Elements 5 (2). https://doi.org/10.6017/eurj.v5i2.8895. 

Royal Museums Greenwich. n.d. “What Is a Sea Shanty?” https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/sea-shanty-facts-history-meaning.

Saunders, William. 1928. “SAILOR SONGS AND SONGS OF THE SEA.” The Musical Quarterly XIV (3): 339–57. https://doi.org/10.1093/mq/xiv.3.339.

“Types of Shanties.” n.d. http://singshanties.blogspot.com/p/types-of-shanties.html.

Winick, Stephen. 2021. “A Deep Dive into Sea Shanties | Folklife Today.” The Library of Congress. January 29, 2021. https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2021/01/a-deep-dive-into-sea-shanties/.