“All hands ahoy ! Tumble up here, men, tumble up, before she drags her anchor! ... Bear-a-hand up and make sail... Lay aloft and loose the topsails !”
- Richard Henry Dana, “Two Years Before the Mast”
Before the Mast sings sea shanties once sung by sea-washed, underfed, dog-tired sailors as they hauled with raw hands on tarry ropes, heaved on capstan bars or manned pumps aboard wooden ships. These shanties are salty and rhythmical in nature and are sung with the vigour that these remarkable work-songs of the sea demand.
"No, when I go to sea, I go as a simple sailor, right before the mast, plumb down in the forecastle, aloft there to the main mast-head. True, they rather order me about some, and make me jump from spar to spar like a grasshopper in a May meadow. And at first this sort of thing is unpleasant enough... But even this wears off in time."
- Herman Melville, "Moby-Dick"
"...a real seaman of the days of sail wouldn't pick up a rope-yarn without raising a song."
-Stan Hugill, "Shanties of the Seven Seas"
Many a mate on a sailing ship would holler out, “What about a song there? Can't any of you sing?” and with that a shantyman would roar forth with the opening lines of his chosen shanty to create and maintain a steady pulse and drive that would allow his shipmates to work together to accomplish the many hard and often dangerous tasks required of them on board a sailing vessel.
Sea shanties were shipboard work-songs sung by sailors during the great days of sail at a time when ‘a good song was worth ten men on a line’.
“The chanteys arose among the despised common seamen, as they fought the drag of line and anchor and bawled out whatever wild cries, oaths and barbarities would help them in their struggle with wind and sea. Of all folk music, these work songs of the sea most clearly belong to the unlearned, unwashed common labourer, and are, most certainly communal creations. Of all songs in English, they are perhaps the noblest, the most vigorous, the most stirring, and the hardest to imitate.”
- Alan Lomax, "The Folk Songs of North America", Doubleday & Co.
"Shanties were the work-songs of the sailing ship man.... and would oft-times be raised to cheer the soul, curse the afterguard and owner, mark the beat, and lighten the labour."
-Stan Hugill, 'Shanties from the Seven Seas'
"The sailors’ songs for capstans and falls, are of a peculiar kind, having a chorus at the end of each line. The burden is usually sung by one alone, and at the chorus, all hands join in – and the louder the noise, the better. With us the noise seemed almost to raise the decks of the ship - and might be heard at a great distance ashore. A song is as necessary to sailors as the drum and fife to a soldier. They must pull together as soldiers must step in time, and they can't pull in time, or pull with a will, without it."
- Richard Henry Dana, Jr., "Two Years Before the Mast" (1840)
"The great lean ship spread her sails one after another...The topsails were set first, and the jibs, then the topgallantsails. The big courses came last, and if the weather held fair, the royals and the studdingsails were added to her driving force. Wind drummed upon the white fine duck that curved taut beneath the yards and from the stays. The braces, the tacks and sheets hummed with the strain. The shrouds talked too and the masts. The waves lifted, dipped, struck the ship, rushed on aft along her runs with an ardent splatter of foam."
-Robert Carse, "The Twilight of the Sailing Ships"