Shanties -
Heave Away/Haul Away

The origin of the word shanty or chantey is uncertain. Some suggest that the term comes from the boat-songs, called “chasons” sung by the French voyageurs in early North America. Others believe it is simply derived from the English word “chant”, while others believe it can be traced back to the huts or “shanties” where sailors congregated to drink and carouse along the coasts of the American South and the West Indies. Perhaps the most widely held belief is that the term shanty comes from the French word “chanter (to sing)”.

Whatever the origin of the term, shanties were sung by sailors to provide a rhythm and beat to their work so that many hands could work together to accomplish difficult tasks on board sailing ships. When these were long tasks requiring many men, such as hoisting the topsails or warping a ship out into the channel, long-haul or halyard shanties were sung. Short-haul shanties provided the pulse needed for the short, forceful pulls required to do something like haul in the bowline. Capstan shanties were sung when work, such as hauling in the anchor, required the crew to heave away together against the capstan bars. These capstan shanties often doubled as pumping shanties as sailors often had to work the pumps to keep their ships afloat. However, when members of the crew were off watch, they often sang fo'c's'le (forecastle) songs or shanties (forebitters) which were sung simply for entertainment and solace.

"To comprehend precisely how the chanteys functioned, one would have to take a cruise aboard a square-rigger, or study the rigging plan of a nineteeth-century barque with its dozens of sails, its miles of line, hundreds of blocks, etc. It will suffice us to know little more than a chantey was an extra hand on a rope or a capstan bar. Truly, that extra hand was needed to raise yards of wet or frozen half-inch thick canvas in the teeth of a sixty-mile gale, or to hoist an upper topsail yard, sixty feet long and as thick as a man’s waist in the middle !"

-Alan Lomax, The Folk Songs of North America, Doubleday & Co.

'Singing out at the Ropes'


All hands, ahoy! tumble up here and take in sail,” saluted our ears, and the hatch was quickly shut again. When I got upon deck, a new scene and a new experience was before me. The little brig was close hauled upon the wind, and lying over, as it then seemed to me, nearly upon her beam ends. The heavy head sea was beating against her bows with the noise and force almost of a sledge hammer, and flying over the deck, drenching us completely through. The topsail halyards had been let go, and the great sails were filling out and backing against the masts with a noise like thunder. The wind was whistling through the rigging, loose ropes flying about; loud and, to me, unintelligible orders constantly given and rapidly executed, and the sailors “singing out” at the ropes in their hoarse and peculiar strains. In addition to all this, I had not got my “sea legs on,” was dreadfully sick, with hardly strength enough to hold on to anything, and it was “pitch dark.” This was my state when I was ordered aloft, for the first time, to reef topsails.

- Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Two Years Before the Mast (1840)

'Come men, can't any of you sing? Sing now and raise the dead.'


"...I soon got used to this singing, for the sailors never touched a rope without it. Sometimes, when no one happened to strike up, and the pulling, whatever it might be, did not seem to be getting forward very well, the mate would always say, 'Come men, can't any of you sing? Sing now and raise the dead.' And then some one of them would begin, and if every man's arms were as much relieved as mine by the song, and he could pull as much better as I did, with such a cheering accompaniment, I am sure the song was well worth the breath expended on it. It is a great thing in a sailor to know how to sing well, for he gets a great name by it from the officers, and a good deal of popularity among his shipmates. Some sea captains, before shipping a man, always ask him whether he can sing out at a rope."

 -Herman Melville, Redburn, chapter 9 (1849)


"If you consider the hull as a ship's body and the sails her means of locomotion, the 'lines', as seamen called the ropes, were her nerves and tendons. The wind blowing on this intricate network of cordage made a deep humming noise in a fresh gale and high-pitched whistle in a storm; halyards slatting against the spars provided the woodwind; the sails spilling wind and then filling out with a hollow boom were the percussion instruments; and the rush of the great waters the organ accompaniment - a symphony of sound in the seaman's ear. Even in the lightest air there was music of sort from spars creaking and the reef points tap-tapping against the duck sails."

- 'Sailor Historian – The Best of Samuel Eliot Morison', edited by Emily Morison Beck



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