'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