Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Art of Manliness Forum regular, Karmazon. Make sure to check out his posts in the forum. He always provides good fodder for discussion.
I soon got used to this singing, for the sailors never touched a rope without it . . . Some sea captains, before shipping a man, always ask him whether he can sing out at a rope.
–Herman Melville, Redburn
It’s the 19th century. You’re a young man seeking adventure and a test of your manhood. You decide to sign up on a ship to see exotic foreign lands. You take the trip to the coast. You find a big coastal town and you walk through the docks admiring the ships. Finally, you spot one that you like. You walk on deck and a tall man dressed in black coat confronts you. It’s the captain.
“What do you want lad?”
“I want to sign on board sir, ” you say.
He looks you up and down, and says “Aye. But first I need to give you a test.”
You’re not worried. You were expecting this and, in fact, hoping for it. You want to show the captain what you can do. After all, you were always the strongest out of all your friends. You could climb up any rock or tree since you learned how to walk. And you also knew a bit about navigation from your grandfather. You were eager to show what a great addition to the crew you’d make.
“How well can you sing?” the captain asks.
Wooden Ships and Iron Men
Sea Shanties were work songs sung on ships during the age of sail. They were used to keep rhythm during work and make it more pleasant. Because these songs were used to accomplish a goal, rather then for pure entertainment, the lyrics and melody were not very sophisticated. Still, the songs were usually meaningful and told of a sailor’s life, which included backbreaking labor, abuse from captain and crew, alcohol, and longing for girls and dry land.
A typical shanty had a call-and-response format. One sailor(a shantyman) would call out a verse, to which the rest of the sailors would respond in unison. The work would occur usually on the last syllable of the response or some other cue. An example can be found in the movie Moby Dick:
Shantyman: Our boots and clothes are all in pawn
Sailors: Go(pull) down ye blood red roses, go(pull) down.
Shanties were divided into several categories, named after the work they were used for. There were long haul shanties and short haul shanties for long and short rope pulling. There were windlass shanties for pumping out water(all wooden ships leaked to some extent and water would have to be pumped out regularly), and capstan shanties for raising and lowering the anchor.