Hauling Lines

Did you Know Sea Shanties were an Important Part of Sailing?

Sea shanties were tools to help keep sailors on task.

Author: Terry Williams, Conservator

Score for Drunken Sailor
Score for "Drunken Sailor"

Many folks have become quite creative in dealing with lockdown requirements, whether working from home, staying in touch with family and friends, or creating a new entertainment craze. Enter Scottish postman Nathan Evans. He is credited with starting the TikTok craze known as “ShantyTok” with his engaging rendition of "Wellerman." Posted in late December, this has reinvigorated a song form whose peak was in the sailing era of the 1840s-1880s.

Shanties (chanties) were sung to make an onerous, team task flow more efficiently. They can generally be placed in two categories: hauling songs (pulling motion) or heaving songs (sustained pushing motion). If you have ever taken part in any difficult, rhythmic task, you can see the advantage of this. For example, the lifesaving task of CPR works very neatly with the disco hit “Stayin’ Alive.”  

Shanties date back centuries. One account denotes a galley voyage by a Dominican friar in 1493, referring to men singing while pulling on a rope under the direction of a song-leader. Another example can be found in The Complaynt of Scotland (1549). This shanty was used “for hoisting the lowyard:”

Afore the wind, afore the wing

God send, God send,

Fair weather, fair weather

Many prizes, many prizes

Frank Bullen (1857-1915), a shantyman and author, compiled a book of shanties titled “Songs of Sea Labor.” According to Bullen, lyrics changed quite readily and were often left up to the imagination of the caller. There would be a starting verse or two and fixed phrases for the chorus. “Many a Shantyman was prized in spite of his poor voice because of his improvisations. Poor doggerel they were mostly and often very lewd and filthy…much opportunity for laughter.”  Many of Frank Bullen’s travels took him to the West Indies and the southern United States where he credits finding new shanties in the harbors.

Call-and-response style work songs were also common in West Africa. The tragic history of this area includes hundreds of years of people being captured and sold into slavery. Captive Africans brought these work songs with them when they were forced into labor in the Americas. Indeed, singing was one way in which enslaved people could push back against their oppressors.

In the truest sense, sea shanties were linked with sailing tasks. That other seafaring tradition, singing songs and drinking rum, involved tunes quite separate from shanties.              

What does this have to do with that infamous pirate, Blackbeard? While there is no documentation that 18th-century pirates sang shanties, logic would dictate yes. Many pirates had been skilled sailors once upon a time and they would have known these songs. Sailing tasks were universal and would have been required even on pirate vessels.

There is even a modern-day shanty written on Blackbeard!


-Bullen, Frank T. and W. F. Arnold. 1914. Songs of Sea Labour (Chanties). London: Swan & Co.

-Hudson River Maritime Museum. 2021. The Wellerman Came and the Internet Listened: https://www.hrmm.org/history-blog/category/sea-shanty. Accessed July 20, 2021.

-Murray, James A. H. 1872. The Complaynt of Scotlande. (1975 reprint). London: Early English Text Society.

-Rose, Kelby. 2012. “Nostalgia and Imagination in Nineteenth-century Sea Shanties,” The Mariner's Mirror, 98(2):147-160.


Sailors hauling on a halyard. Image from Patterson, J. E. 1900. “Sailors’ Work Songs,” Good Words 41(28):391-397. {{PD-US-expired}}

Score for the sea shanty, “Drunken Sailor,” by Richard Runciman Terry. {{PD-old-70}}

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