Charting a Musical Course Through Maritime History

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park


We are anchored in maritime history through music and song, an integral part of life at sea. Hardened, intrepid sailors sang all day to sustain themselves at sea – their songs today, a musical porthole into maritime history.

For the ordinary sailor on a deepwater ship, work was grueling and dangerous. Songs were key to survival for sailors who were permitted to sing while they worked, but not allowed to talk. Sea chanteys – believed to be from the French chanter, to sing – were traditional work songs sung by sailors to lift their spirits and to maintain rhythm, essential for working as a team.

Created by sailors, chantey lyrics are first hand accounts of shipboard life. Through chanteys, sailors could air grievances that they could not otherwise voice. A vital source of historical information, the songs of mariners’ lives, dreams, and universal human emotions transport us to another place and time.

It’s rotten meat and weevily bread, John Kanaka-naka tulai-e, It’s two weeks out you’ll wish you’re dead, John Kanaka-naka tulai-e.

There’s just one thing that grieves my mind, John Kanaka-naka tulai-e, To leave my wife and child behind, John Kanaka-naka tulai-e.

Sing the old songs with us aboard Balclutha while raising a sail, or turning the capstan or heavy bilge pump. Feel a visceral connection to history through your tired shoulders! Or join us for our free, evening sea chantey singalong aboard Balclutha the first Saturday of each month. High seas and harrowing Cape Horn passages are almost palpable as we sing from 8pm to midnight.

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park preserves our maritime heritage through the rich and varied music of the sea. This ensures present and future generations can maintain a connection, a mooring, to their maritime past.

Oh the times were hard and the wages low, Leave her Johnny leave her, And now once more ashore we’ll go, And it’s time for us to leave her.


Sailors sang all day to sustain themselves at sea. Today, their songs are a porthole into maritime history.


2 minutes, 18 seconds


Kathryn Daskal

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