The Role Of Shanties

The Role Of Shanties

Shanties were shipboard work songs with calls and responses between a shantyman and his fellow sailors sung to create and maintain a rhythm so that many hands could work together on board ship, whether it was heaving on a capstan bar, hauling on a halyard, furling a sail or manning a pump. In the afterhours, when work was done, sailors would often sing songs for entertainment and solace. Before the Mast also has an extensive repertoire of these fo'c'sle shanties or forebitters as well as other songs of the sea. 

...I soon got used to this singing, for the sailors never touched a rope without it. Sometimes, when no one happened to strike up, and the pulling, whatever it might be, did not seem to be getting forward very well, the mate would always say, "Come men, can't any of you sing? Sing now and raise the dead." Some sea captains, before shipping a man, always ask him whether he can sing out at a rope.” - Herman Melville

— Redburn, chapter 9 (1849)

Sea shanties were work songs once sung by sailors on board sailing vessels at a time when work such as hauling up an anchor or raising a sail was accomplished by manpower. Shanties were critical to the proper working of a ship and made it possible for many hands to work together by provided both rhythm and energy for the job at hand. 

When the job was a long drawn out affair such as raising a sail, long haul or halyard shanties were sung . These had a very steady pulse which allowed sailors to move, set up and haul together with their raw hands on tarry ropes. The shantyman would often need to string together a great many verses before such jobs were done and so needed to be able to make them up on the fly. 

Sometimes when the job was known to be of short duration, such as trimming or furling the sail, a short haul shanty would be sung. These were used for hauling jobs which required, as one shantyman is purported to have said, "only a few pulls, but they had to be good ones!" Again the definite beat told the men when to exert a good strong pull and when to relax. 

When a capstan was used to raise the anchor or warp the ship, a capstan shanty was called for. These shanties created a steady walking rhythm as the sailors moved around and around heaving on the capstan bars. These same capstan shanties often doubled as pumping shanties because operating s ship's pump required the same sort of easy rhythm to be effective. 

Sailors also sang songs when not on duty and these were referred to as fo'c'sle shanties or forebitters. These were not considered work songs but were sung for entertainment and solace; songs about home, missing loved ones and life ashore. 

It was no accident that many a mate was heard to holler out,“What about a song there? Can't any of you sing?". They knew how important shanties were to the success of a voyage.

On sailing day the capstan would be the first object sailors would come in contact with, either to heave the anchor or warp the vessel out through the locks. Once the cry was raised ‘Man the caps’n!’, the men would lumber up, take the bars from the rack, ship them in pigeon holes in the head of the capstan, and start heaving. Then from the mate would come the questioning shout, “What about a song there? Who’s the bloody nightingale aboard this packet?” And there and then the self-appointed shantyman would roar forth the opening solo of his shanty.” - Stan Hugill

— Shanties from the Seven Seas

The name 'Before the Mast' refers to the fact that ordinary sailors were berthed uncomfortably in the forecastle (fo'c'sle or fo'c's'le) which was forward of the foremast or 'before the mast'. Formed in 2007, the group has performed hundreds of times throughout the east coast in venues as diverse as museums, tall ships, church halls, Masonic lodges, folk festivals, parks, historic inns, a Martello tower and a sea captains' re-enactment dinner. 

This is the wisdom of the sea, its essential paradox. It quickens us, extends us, prompts feats of innovation and courage, then washes them all away. No trace remains; man and mountain yield to the levelling force of the sea. In its omnipotence, its beauty and its purity, the sea is the earthly manifestation of the divine. Building a vessel and crossing a body of water is a transcendent achievement, and afterwards nothing in this life quite compares.” - Philip Marsden

— The Levelling Sea [Harper]