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Songs from the Shackleton Expedition to Antartica

From book ‘Memories of Antartic Days’
by James Murray and George Marston. 1913



played an active role in the pioneering Shackleton exhibition and this first-hand account states the following were sung:

  • Santa Ana
  • Leave Her Jollies
  • Yankee Ship
  • Blow the Man Down
  • Sally Brown
  • Paddy Doyle’s Boots
  • Drunken Sailor
  • Whiskey Johnny
  • Stormalong
  • The Merman
  • Shanandoah


Life on the Nimrod was ameliorated by the sailors’ chanties. The chanty is a fine old institution for promoting work with a will. There used to be chanties appropriate to every operation aboard a sailing vessel; nowadays we do not discriminate too minutely.

Mackay had good store of chanties, so had the bo’sn, Cheetham, and old Daddy Spice.
Now Daddy Spice was inclined to choose chanties which had the longest verses and shortest choruses (of course you only work with the chorus). A mate reared on the tradition of the old school of wind-jammers does not relish anything which gives the sailor an easy time, and it was a sight to watch the face of ours as we drawled through the slow length of the verse, followed by two quick bars of chorus (== two pulls). But chanties also were part of the tradition and he could not interfere.

It is amusing to join in a chanty when Cheetham is chantyman. When we are all in place and ready to pull, Cheetham opens his mouth to start the chanty, his face beaming with delight (just as in the accompanying photo). But no sound comes. It is an awkward moment for those who do not know Cheetham. Sometimes they begin hauling without a chanty, and one occasion, quite unconscious of offence, a man started another chanty.
Still Cheetham stands with open mouth and a look of ecstasy, a finger uplifted to show that it is all right. At length a faint, squeaky noise comes out, it has been all this time welling up from some remote depths of his interior. It gathers strength and at length issues as full volume of “A Yankee ship came down the river”. Cheetham’s look changes to one of triumph; he knew it was coming all right all the time.


Blow the Man Down

She was round in the counter and bluff in the bow
To me weigh hey blow the man down
Blow him right back
To Liverpool Town

Give me some time to blow the man down

Oh, where are you going, my pretty girl?

I’m going a-milking, kind sire, she said,


The following version of this classic American shanty has the sweetheart residing in London.
Polly’s the girl, just took my fancy
Away my rolling river

She’s clipper built, her name is Nancy
Away, we’re bound away, across the wide Missouri

I take her coral beads and laces
Away my rolling river
I love to call her queen of faces

Away, we’re bound away, across the wide Missouri

She lives alone in London City
Away my rolling river

Perhaps you’ll think it’s more the pity
Away, we’re bound away, across the wide Missouri


By G. E. Marston

This is extracted from the Shackleton team’s memoirs. It is most probably the last lucid report of shanties in use and makes for fascinating reading.

THE sailor has a reputation for singing a good song or leading a rousing chorus, which he perhaps deserves, and for the landsman
there is a glamour about the sea and the life of a sailor which will always make songs of the sea popular; yet this usually accepted idea of a typical sea song bears little or no resemblance to the songs actually sung at sea, and the sailor’s version of ” A Life on the Rolling Wave ” usually ends up with abuse for the man who wrote the song.

There is a type of sea song, however, with which the landsman is not generally familiar, known as the Chanty, which owes its existence to the necessities of the sailor’s calling. Chanties are the working songs of the sea.

Many of these have been handed down by word of mouth through generations, some of them dating back certainly to the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth.

Now that we are in danger of losing them, together with what is perhaps the most beautiful work of man’s hand—the sailing ship—efforts have been made to preserve these haunting melodies, but the atmosphere amid which they were sung and which
is an essential part of their beauty, can never be retained by blade notes on paper, so that one cannot help wondering sometimes, when hearing them sung in cultured accents to a piano accompaniment,
whether it would not be better to let them die peacefully, a natural death, amid their appropriate setting the roar of the sea and the moan of the wind in the shrouds—than to artificially prolong their life, like the mesmerized corpse in one of Poe’s stories, to some day die a second and more horrid death, after jarring the nerves of our more cultured descendants.

There is hardly a duty on a sailing ship which has not its own Chanty .to accompany it, from weighing anchor to furling the sails in the home port. The sailor’s love for the Chanty, however, is not merely an aesthetic one. The laborious work of hauling on ropes is made lighter and the pull of a few men more effective by the singing of the Chanty, which times the pull. A crowd of men pulling together in silence on perhaps a pitch-black night at sea, would more than likely pull just anyhow, one after the other, but the pull which comes with the chorus of the Chanty will contain the united efforts of the men, and as no man can be miserable for long when singing a jolly chorus, they serve the further purpose of cheering the men and keeping their minds off the little discomforts incidental to a ” Life on the Rolling Wave.”

The Chanty consists of one line of solo, which the Chanty-man standing at the head of the rope sings, and then the chorus, which the men sing as they pull. The Chanty-man is a power on a sailing ship, although I believe his position is not so clearly de-fined now as it used to be. He was elected by the hands forrard, and was expected to be an extempore poet, his ability to adapt the words of his Chanty to passing events being an important factor in deciding their choice.

The discipline at sea is of necessity a strict one. Complaints to those in power meet with little sym-pathy, and direct criticism of an officer would be rank-insubordination, bringing with it a swift and unpleasant result. Grumbling, however, is an in-herent part of a sailor’s character, and the Chanty proves a useful safety-valve.

There is an unwritten law at sea that the words of a Chanty, so far as those aft are concerned, do not exist; and many a sly hint to the officer of the watch is conveyed in the words of a Chanty.

On weighing anchor at the beginning of a voyage, the Chanty-man may sing:

(Away For Rio)

We’ve a Jolly good ship and a jolly good crew.
Away Rio, A jolly good mate and a good skipper too.
Chorus : We’re bound for Rio Grande,

Every one starting off with a clean sheet, and the best of intentions, but many a ship which started on her voyage with this Chanty enters her home port with the crowd singing, in spite of the efforts of skipper and mate to suppress it:

(Leave Her. Jollies)

Oh, the work was hard and the voyage was long.

Leave her, Johnny, leave her.
The food was bad and the gales were strong
It’s time for us to leave her,

This doleful chanty announcing to all who care to listen—and who could resist—the failing of those aft as officers, sailors or men; so that the Chanty and the Chanty-man is a power which it is not advisable for an officer to entirely ignore. Thinking a pull has gone on long enough, a Chanty-man will sing:

Oh, I fancied I heard the first mate say,

Chorus : Weigh-ay, blow the man down.

Another good pull, boys, then belay.
Chorus : Give us some time and we’ll blow the man down,

Then he may take the hint and cry, ” Belay,” and he may not.

I suppose the voice of the average Chanty-man, judged by ordinary musical standards, is on a low level, so too would be the voice of the London hawker crying, ” Sweet Lavender “; place him in a drawing-room and the effect would be disastrous, but who is insensible to the charm of this cry, as the hawkers ply their trade in the London streets. It is a charm similar to this, which the Chanties possess. The airs are simple, the words could certainly not be considered great poetry by any stretch of the imagination, and yet no one who has traversed the seas in a sailing ship will ever forget the pleasure of listening to sailors as they chantied up the topsails, hauled on the braces, or walked the capstan round. Officers who have forsaken sail for steamship may, as they sometimes do, pretend to despise the Chanties as songs, but in some corner of their hearts there is a warm corner kept for the Chanty, and all the pleasures and pains it recalls.

I was once a passenger on a liner, the captain of which was a fine type of the men the sailing ship produced. We whiled away the tedious hours in the usual way. And as a contribution to the inevitable concert, I and one other contributed some Chanties, much to the professed astonishment of the captain, who expressed surprise that any one should consider these worthy to be classed as songs in the usually accepted sense of the word; he admitted they were “alright in their way, but they are not songs,” and I gathered that he looked on them as having been left behind him with the sailing ship. But I think his feelings towards them were not so cold as he would have us believe, for next day, as we sat in the shadow of a boat yarning of old times and singing the despised Chanties, I noticed the Captain was never far away; pausing in his steady pacing up and down, he observed:

” You’ve got that one wrong, my boy.”
“How does it go, then ? ” said I.
” Oh, my singing days are over,” says he, but down he sat on the deck, giving us ” Santa Anna,” in true Chanty-man fashion, to the astonishment of the deck Quarter-master, who promptly disappeared. Once having started, he gave us many quaint old Chanties, together with recollections of his sailing ship days, and the despised Chanty was by no means one of his least pleasant recollections.

It was during his very early days at sea that he sailed on a ship which had a mixed crew of black and white men, the blacks working one side of the ship and the whites the other. But no sooner did the black crew begin to pull and haul, than his work was dropped and he was held as any child would be (for he was then little more than a child m years), spellbound by the extraordinary antics of the blacks. Their naturally comic grimaces, their habit of keeping up a sort of jig-step as they chantied, and their typically Negro tunes would usually end by doubling him up in fits of laughter. His enjoyment, however, was short-lived, as the mate’s conception of discipline at sea made no allowance for a sense of humour. I think the enjoyment of the members of the crew, who wit-nessed the unbending of their captain, fully equalled ours.

Those whose experience of the sea has been con fined to steamship will associate with the sea the steady throb of the ship’s engines, and the swish-swish of her bow-wash as she cleaves her way through the seas.

One has not been on a sailing ship long, however, before one-becomes conscious of a faint but persistent musical hum in the air, which at first one is at a loss to account for. In storms this sound increases in volume, and one is aware that it is composed of many subtle harmonies which, as they swell and die away, leave an impression of some supernatural orchestra. Sooner or later one realizes that the orchestra is composed of the many ropes forming the rigging of the ship. Of varying thickness and tautness, they provide a harp for the winds to play upon. Such is the accompaniment the Chanties deserve, and, once having heard it, no one could tolerate, as a substitute, the jangling piano.

I have said the Chanties are dying out, and I believe they certainly are, but that they are by no means dead yet, but are still a very live thing to some sailors, at any rate, I had very strongly impressed on me during our voyage in the old Nimrod.

I have had a nodding acquaintance with Chanties since childhood, and was attracted to them partly for their quaint words and tunes, and partly, perhaps, for the sentimental reason that they were associated in my mind with a very young sailor cousin, who taught me to sing them during the brief periods he was on shore between his voyages, and whom I made my youthful hero mainly, I think, because he wore a brass-bound cap very much on one side, had a knife in his belt, and generally a packet of sweets in one pocket and a Derringer pistol in the other, with which I once saw him shoot a black spider.

It was not until I joined the Nimrod that I saw them put to their proper use. Up till then they had been so many songs which sailors sang while working and, although I vaguely knew that each had appropriate tasks, yet I was unaware that this was a hard and fast condition in their use. We were hauling on the topsail halliards, I think, when I was called upon to strike up a Chanty. I started “We’re homeward bound,” an unfortunate choice to begin with, as we were leaving home as fast as we could. It certainly fitted after a fashion, though the pull was a slow one, but, to my surprise, the watch below turned out on deck, as I discovered later, to know why we were singing a capstan Chanty in mid ocean. It was a joke they never forgot, and they lost no opportunity of pulling my leg about it. Months afterwards I was introduced by one of them to a friend as ‘* The chap who put a capstan Chanty to the topsail halliards.”

The Nimrod Alphabet

By Rusticus (Dr. Michell)

View Words

Outside his official capacity, we respected and liked our enthusiastic mate. Nobody had the honour and prestige of the Expedition more at heart than he, or was more ready to expend his utmost effort to further it.