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Sea Shanties

Captain Watson sings ‘Leave Her Jollies, Leave Her’. Not technically a shanty, however, it has the flavour of the sea and was a popular song when the crew was headed for land. NLA O’Connor Collection


A sea song is not a sea “chantey’ though most people seem to think it is (writes Morley Roberts in the “Daily Chronicle”). “What sailor men sing in tho fo’c’sle when they are in a good ship and feel like singing may be any kind of song. They are mostly sentimental for the matter of that, and rarely have anything to do with the sea. At times, however, one may hear “Spanish Ladies’ or ‘Rolling Home” in the second dog-watch. A chantey or shanty is purely and simply a working or hauling song. Whether the word is derived from the French, “chanter” to sing, or from a shanty song, ie, such a song as was sung in grog-shanties and the like is a little doubtful. It is, however, invariably pronounced ‘shanty’.

The main theme is sung by the shanty-man and the hauling chorus by the rest of the watch, or the whole crowd, if all hands are on deck. They haul at the stressed words of the chorus, for the whole scheme of the shanty is to ensure a simultaneous pull on the brace or sheet or whatever gear may be handled. Among the real old favourites ‘Haul on the Bowline,” “Blow the Man Down,” “Handily, Boys, So Handy‘”. The shanty-man, who is very often an old seaman, will often be the first man on the brace, and I have seen them look as proud at a Scotch piper as they started, after a look at those tailing on behind them. Ho gives out:

Haul on the bowline,
The main t’gallant bowline, (and the rest come in with)
Haul on tho bowline,
The bowline, haul!

The pull coming on the word “haul “.
Then the shanty man may go on as he likes, sometimes with personal
remarks, such as:

Haul on the bowline,
Tho cook’s a bally Chinaman, or, more according to tradition, with:
Haul on the bowline,
Tho ship she is a-rollin’,

And so on, till the bo’sun says “Belay there’. Such a shanty is a fairly slow one, though the time can be varied by the chief musician when the haul is heavy or light. “Handily, boys, so handy’” is a quicker shanty, and often used for mastheading a topsail. I have heard it sung (and sung it myself):

Now, up aloft that yard must go,
Handily, boys, so handy!’
So haul it up from down below,
Handily, boys, so handy.
And when we get to the Isle of Wight,
Handily, boys, so handy ‘
The pilot boat will heave in sight,
Handily, boys, so handy!.

There is, indeed, a grim and sometimes awful humour in a few of the shanties, in ‘Whiskey’, for instance, which often goes: –

Whiskey is the life of man,
Whiskey, Johnny,
And I’ll drink whiskey while I can,
Whiskey for my Johnny;
Oh, whiskey killed my poor old dad,
Whiskey, Johnny,
And whiskey drove my mother mad,
Whiskey for my Johnny.

Many of the best and most interesting tunes are set to words which cannot be printed, in particular one of the capstan star shanties, which has a curious staccato rhythm for the men as they stamp round shoving at the handspikes. Some of the ‘stamp and go’ or ‘walk away’ shanties are very good.

They are used when there is enough ‘beef on the braces” for the men to run away rather than do a haul at rhythmic intervals. Such a one is: ‘What shall we do with a drunken sailor,” in which a step is taken with each accented syllable. The slowest shanty of all is known as a ‘main sheet shanty’. Here there is a good deal of song to one big pull. An example is:
Way, haul away, we’ll hang and haul together,
Way, haul away, and haul away, Joe,

in which the only pull is on the word “Joe”. It goes on:

Way, haul away, we’ll haul for better weather;
Way, haul away, and haul away, Joe.,

Another favourite is “Time for us to leave her”. I have heard it sung with considerable bitterness when the ship’s officers were not popular.

Oh, the times are hard and wages low
Leave her, bullies, leave her ,
Bet your life it’s lime to go,
It’s time for us to leave her.

Perhaps the most beautiful of all the shanties is ‘Goodbye, Fare Ye Well”
and to hear it sung early on a misty morning in a harbour when many ships are ‘rousing out’ the mud-hook is something to remember. One kind of purely individual shanty is very rarely spoken of. It often has a strange personal note, and is used when no regular shanty is needed as in a straight downward pull of a t’gallant sheet. Then the call comes “Sing out, some one!”
and the best at the game piles in with an irregular series of words and sounds impossible to describe

The (Hobart) Mercury. 24 April 1921

Chanties of the Sailorman Aboard the Wind-Jammer

Whoever has foregathered much with sailors will have heard something of their chanties, those, curious songs which form so important an accompaniment to the work done aboard a sailing vessel. Hear the singing of a chantey going and it may be safely assumed all is well with the crew. When the men hauling on the yards or braces, or heaving the anchor, don’t work rhythmically to the singing of one of the particular songs peculiar to whatever piece of work is going forward something is wrong. Who wrote the words of the chanties? …nobody knows. Most of them are old, and the tunes to which they are sung are probably older still. They have been handed; down from tradition.

‘One of’ the most beautiful melodies is that belonging to the chantey invariably sung when heaving anchor preparatory to leaving a foreign port on the homeward voyage. The words, too, are distinguished by genuine feeling :

Our anchor we’ll weigh, and our sails we will set;
Good-bye, fare ye well,
Good-bye, fare ye well,
The friends we are leaving,
We leave with regret,
Hurrah, my boys.,
We’re homeward bound

The first and fourth lines are sung as a solo by the chantyman or leader; the- other lines – the chorus – fall to the rest as they put their backs into heaving on the rawls – the short lengths of wood fitting in the revolving capstan on which the anchor cable is wound. In a similar way all shanties are sung. The majority are ‘four-lined, the chantey man and the chorus taking a line alternately.
Scores of these songs are in existence, but they are not sung indiscriminately. There is an appropriation of certain ones to certain tasks connected with the working of a ship which entail heaving, or hauling. For instance, one of, the oldest and most popular “As I was a-walking down Paradise “Street:

With me aye; aye, blow the man down
I chanced on a frigate, so nice and so neat,
Give us some time to blow the man down‘


“Bonny was a warrior,
Oh, ay, oh!
Boney was a fighting man,
A long time ago.

……would be entirely out of place when the singers were engaged in heaving up the anchor, the refrain being to totally unsuitable to the long, ‘slow movement with which , the turning of a capstan is necessarily accomplished.

Their Practical Value

That the words of many, of the chanties are meaningless detracts nothing from their value. There is a swing and a rhythm about them that makes listening delightful, and, gives them a highly practical value by causing the men engaged to work in unison, thus utilizing their combined strength to the full advantage.
.As might be expected, the sailor’s traditional love of the feminine sex gets full latitude in the work, and few chanties are sung with better feeling than those into which enter such references.
But there is no chantey that sounds more sweetly in the sailor’s ears than:
Leave her, ‘Johnny. It is raised when the craft is getting into the home port and plenty of meaning the crew put into their singing when the chantey man strikes up:
I thought I heard the skipper say,
Chorus :
Leave her, Johnny, leave her.
You may go. ashore and get your pay”.
It’s time for us to leave her.
Jack’s work lies afloat, his fun ashore, and, like everyone else he is right glad when the time for his enjoyment comes. And he says so emphatically. It may be that, as he sings,’ ‘”The grub was bad and the wages low “ therefore, it is no wonder he is pleased when “It’s time for us to leave her.”
Northern Territory Times & Gazette 27 Feb. 1913